I have just returned from a trip to Mauritania, where I was the first MP to visit the country since Sir Peter Tapsell in 1960. This visit was organised by the Conservative Arab Network, of which I am Parliamentary Chairman, with a view to developing a relationship with a country which has for so long been almost completely overlooked by us.
Few have even heard of Mauritania and even fewer know where it is, but this nation of only three million people is the the fourth largest country in Africa – by area – and the outcome of its war against terrorism could have very significant consequences for us.
Mauritania is one of the poorest members of the Arab League, however as it exploits its vast natural resources over the next few years, high commodity prices are poised to economically transform this nation. British business should be part of this, yet as we travelled around the country it became blatantly apparent there was almost no UK presence there.
During the visit, I was fortunate enough to meet the President of this now democratic country, as well as numerous ministers. At a political level, I found the democratic structures, devolution of power and free political discourse of opposition groups highly refreshing for this part of the world. I met with Opposition politicians and had the opportunity to discuss with them how they are working constructively together with the government on areas of common ground and yet effectively opposing when necessary in Parliament.
Over decades, and under governments of different colours, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has consistently neglected the region, resulting in a negligible interraction and economic exchange. We are the poorer for it. It is vital that if we are to continue to justify our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as well as trade our way out of the financial mess Labour have left us, we cannot afford to ignore nations because they don't speak English. The way we have ignored Mauritania represents a distinct deficiency of our foreign policy and a lack of imagination. Throughout the entire visit, there was a hunger for interraction with the UK, and the development of a stronger bilateral relationship which would compliment Mauritania's traditional partners.
The record of the EU in Mauritania is a worrying example as to why we must not allow Brussels institutions to act in our name, nor claim to act in our interest. The EU's duplicity in sending trawler fleets to fish in Mauritanian waters, whilst (the Mauritanian's claim) repeatedly refusing to even fund jetties costing just a few hundred pounds for local fisherman, is shameful.
I have been calling for direct representation of Her Majesty's Government in Mauritania, and am delighted that it appears we shall in fact be openning a permanent office in Nouakchott later this year. I will however continue to campiagn for the posting of a permanent ambassador and creation of meaningful local support for UK business.