Mauritania stands at the threshold of a crucial political change. The actions of political leaders and wider society during this critical period could have large and far-reaching consequences in setting the course for the country's evolution.
President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz will comply with the constitution of Mauritania and stand down at the end of his second elected term of office in mid-2019. His chosen successor Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ahmed Ould Ghazouani, the defence minister, has been formally endorsed as a candidate by the ruling Union Pour la République (UPR).
Ghazouani is a longstanding close confidant of the current head of state. Even so, the change of national leader will test the resilience and adaptability of the power structure over which Abdelaziz has presided in a highly personalized manner for more than a decade.
Elections in September 2018 enlarged and diversified the range of opponents in the National Assembly, municipalities and in new regional councils. The opposition now faces the challenge of presenting voters with a coherent message and alternative electoral choice in the forthcoming presidential contest.
Mauritania's democratic record is not flawless, and conditions have tightened since the regime's more tolerant early years; strident critics have sometimes been met with a belligerent and repressive state response. However, the country remains a pluralistic polity, where a range of views is expressed and the ruling UPR is open to democratic electoral challenge and, in some constituencies, defeat.
Weak global prices for iron ore and gold - the country's key mineral exports - have put pressure on public finances in recent years, but the government has managed to contain the impact. From around 2021, revenues will be strengthened by the start of production at the Grand Tortue Ahmeyin (GTA) offshore gas project.
Major hydrocarbons development represents a significant opportunity for Mauritania to tackle profound societal differences and economic inequality.
Mauritania is already rebalancing its international relations, most notably through the central role it played in forming the G5 Sahel group of countries. The initiative is complemented by a broader reinforcement of connections with both sub-Saharan and Gulf Arab countries. Abdelaziz has positioned himself as a supportive partner of the current Saudi Arabian leadership and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The country's diplomatic and economic reorientation towards West Africa is explicitly linked to the government's attempts to tackle the poverty, unemployment and social frustrations that fuel the appeal of extremist ideology and jihadist recruitment across the Sahel; the southeast, one of Mauritania's most disadvantaged areas; and unstable central regions of Mali.
Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme