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Buying property in Mauritania: scams and pitfalls

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Everything you need to know is included in our Mauritania Property Pack

Mauritania's potential for investment and its strategic location in Africa are attracting foreign investors to its real estate market.

Buying property there can be complicated though, especially if you're not a local resident.

Our group of property buyers and local associates have voiced multiple issues to us. We've listed them all in our Mauritania Property Pack.

We’re going to take a closer look at a few of these in this article.

Is it safe or risky to invest in real estate in Mauritania?

In Mauritania, the property market is not as developed as in Western countries, and this lack of development can translate into increased risks for potential buyers, particularly those from abroad.

Specific examples of pitfalls include ambiguous land rights and a lack of clear documentation.

In some cases, land that is sold to foreign investors may be subject to claims by traditional owners or those who have been utilizing the land without formal ownership, leading to disputes that can be both costly and time-consuming to resolve.

A significant point to consider is the prevalence of scams.

While not unique to Mauritania, the risk may be heightened due to the less formal nature of property transactions. There have been reports of investors purchasing land, only to find out the seller was not the rightful owner. This is a scenario where foreign buyers have been known to lose their investment entirely.

Furthermore, when it comes to the legal system in Mauritania, it's worth noting that the country's legal infrastructure may not be as equipped to handle property disputes swiftly or as transparently as buyers might expect.

The mix of French civil law and Sharia law, while offering a legal framework, can lead to unpredictability in court rulings, especially for those unfamiliar with Islamic legal principles.

This hybrid legal system can make the outcome of disputes difficult to predict, and resolutions may be inconsistent.

Another concern for foreigners is the actual process of buying property.

It lacks the transparency seen in more developed real estate markets. For example, Mauritania does not have a comprehensive online database where potential buyers can easily access property records and verify ownership.

The reliance on paper records and personal assurances rather than a digital and publicly accessible registry system adds layers of complexity and risk.

The Mauritanian government has taken some steps to encourage foreign investment, including in real estate, but these efforts are relatively nascent and not always well-publicized or understood.

Thus, the impact on buyers is a market that remains under-regulated and where governmental support in the event of a dispute or problem may be limited.

Due diligence for a foreign buyer must be more intensive than in more transparent markets.

It should involve not only the customary checks on the property and seller but also a deeper investigation into local customs, the history of the property, and potential claims against the property.

Engaging with a well-connected local attorney is not just advisable but essential.

Given these specific challenges, the opinion tilts towards caution. The unique situation in Mauritania, with its mix of informal property customs and formal legal processes, demands a higher level of vigilance and local knowledge.

The mistakes can indeed be costly, and the protective legal umbrella one might expect in other jurisdictions can be more porous here.

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Avoid these pitfalls when purchasing property in Mauritania

The "Melkisation" process

When buying residential property in Mauritania, a common pitfall you might not be aware of, especially as a foreigner, involves the unique practice surrounding the “melkisation” process.

Melkisation is specific to Mauritania and refers to the conversion of traditional collective land ownership, known as "warcha", into private property.

This process can be complex and is often mishandled.

In the context of residential property purchase, you should be particularly cautious if the property you're interested in is recently melkised.

It's not uncommon for disputes to arise over land ownership due to ambiguities in the melkisation process. Such disputes can be protracted and complicated, entangling you in legal battles.

The frequency of such issues varies, but they are more common in areas where traditional land ownership was prevalent and recent urban expansion has taken place. To navigate this, you are advised to conduct thorough due diligence.

Ensure that the property's melkisation process was completed correctly and that there are no outstanding disputes or claims.

The "Hakura" concept

Another specific pitfall in Mauritania when buying residential property is related to the concept of "Hakura."

In Mauritania, Hakura refers to a traditional form of land ownership that is often undocumented and based on tribal or community recognition rather than formal registration.

As a foreigner, you should be especially cautious if the property you're interested in is on land traditionally known as Hakura. The key issue here is that the ownership of such lands is often not formally recognized by the state and lacks official documentation.

This can lead to complications in establishing clear and legally recognized ownership of the property.

In contexts where Hakura is prevalent, there's a risk that the seller may not have the legal authority to sell the land, despite appearing to be the owner by community standards.

This can lead to disputes or challenges to your ownership after the purchase.

The frequency of this issue can be higher in rural areas or in regions where traditional practices are strongly upheld. To safeguard your interests, you are advised to ensure that any land you are purchasing has clear, state-recognized documentation of ownership.

This might involve a more comprehensive background check and legal consultation than usual.

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The risk of "Zouaya"

In Mauritania, another less known but significant pitfall when buying residential property relates to the "Zouaya" system.

The Zouaya system is a unique socio-religious structure in Mauritania, which can have implications on property transactions.

The Zouaya communities are traditional religious communities that have historically held significant social and sometimes economic influence in certain regions. If you're considering buying property in an area where Zouaya communities are influential, you need to be aware of their potential impact on property rights and transactions.

One key aspect is that in some cases, property within these communities may be subject to informal agreements or traditional understandings that are not fully recognized or documented in the formal legal system.

This can lead to complications if you're unaware of these nuances.

For instance, a property that appears to be available for sale might be subject to restrictions or expectations based on these traditional systems.

Such restrictions could affect your rights as a property owner, your ability to make changes to the property, or even your ability to resell it in the future.

The "Moughataa" system

Another specific pitfall in purchasing residential property in Mauritania, particularly relevant for foreigners, is related to the "Moughataa" system.

Moughataa refers to the administrative division system in Mauritania, which can have unique implications for property transactions.

When buying property, you should be aware that each Moughataa, or administrative district, in Mauritania may have its own set of rules, regulations, and even customary practices regarding land ownership and property transactions.

These can vary significantly from one Moughataa to another and might not be immediately apparent to someone unfamiliar with the local context.

For example, in some Moughataas, there might be specific requirements for property registration, taxes, or even restrictions on the sale of property to foreigners.

These local variations can be particularly challenging to navigate if you're not well-acquainted with the local administrative procedures and customary practices.

This issue becomes more pronounced in rural or less developed Moughataas, where local customs and practices play a more significant role in property transactions. The lack of formalization in these areas can lead to ambiguity and potential legal disputes over property ownership.

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The risk of "Adrar"

A further unique pitfall when buying residential property in Mauritania, and one that might be less known to foreigners, involves the "Adrar" system.

This is particularly relevant if you are looking at properties in the Adrar region, known for its desert landscape and traditional lifestyle.

The Adrar system isn't just a geographical reference but also encompasses a set of traditional customs and practices that can significantly affect property transactions. In this region, property ownership and land rights can be heavily influenced by traditional tribal laws and customs, which might not align with the national legal framework.

One of the challenges you might face in this context is the informal nature of property agreements.

In some cases, property transactions in the Adrar region are conducted primarily on the basis of traditional agreements or verbal understandings, with little to no formal documentation. This can lead to ambiguities about the boundaries, rights, and obligations associated with the property.

Moreover, in the Adrar system, the role of tribal leaders and community elders can be crucial in property transactions.

Their approval or consent might be required for a transaction to be considered legitimate in the eyes of the local community, regardless of what is stated in formal legal documents.

The concept of "Diya"

In Mauritania, a unique and potentially overlooked pitfall when buying residential property, especially for foreigners, is related to the "Diya" system.

The Diya system, rooted in Islamic law and local customs, involves a traditional form of compensation used in resolving disputes, including those related to property.

Understanding the Diya system is crucial if you're purchasing property in areas where tribal influence and traditional customs are strong. In these communities, property disputes or damages might be resolved through the Diya system rather than through the formal legal system.

This could involve negotiations and compensation that are not familiar to those outside the local context.

For example, if a property dispute arises after your purchase, especially involving injury or damage, the local community might expect it to be resolved through a Diya, which is a compensation payment, rather than through legal proceedings.

The amount and terms of this compensation can be significantly different from what you might expect under formal legal systems.

Additionally, the enforcement of such agreements can be largely community-driven, relying more on social and tribal norms than on state law.

This can create a complex situation for foreigners, who might not be well-versed in these traditions or have the necessary community ties.

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The concept of "Sukuk" system

Navigating the complexities of property purchase in Mauritania presents another unique challenge for foreigners, especially in understanding and dealing with the "Sukuk" system.

Sukuk, in the Mauritanian context, refers to Islamic financial certificates, similar to bonds in Western finance, but compliant with Islamic Sharia law.

When purchasing property in Mauritania, especially in urban or commercially developed areas, you might encounter properties financed through Sukuk. This financing method is different from conventional mortgages and loans due to its adherence to Islamic principles, which prohibit interest (Riba).

If you are considering a property that is financed or associated with Sukuk, it is crucial to understand the terms and conditions of these Islamic financial instruments.

Unlike conventional loans, Sukuk structures involve a more complex set of relationships and agreements, often based on profit-sharing or lease-to-own arrangements rather than interest-based repayments.

In the context of Sukuk-financed properties, you might face unique constraints and obligations.

For example, the transfer of property ownership might involve specific conditions under Sharia law, and there may be limitations on how you can use or modify the property.

Additionally, the resolution of disputes or defaults in Sukuk transactions might follow Islamic legal principles, which can be quite different from Western legal systems.

"Sharia-compliant" and its risks

A less commonly known yet significant pitfall in buying residential property in Mauritania, especially for foreigners, relates to understanding and dealing with "Sharia-compliant" real estate transactions.

In Mauritania, a predominantly Muslim country, many property transactions are conducted according to Islamic law (Sharia), which can be quite different from Western legal practices.

When buying residential property in Mauritania, a predominantly Muslim country, it's important to be aware of the unique aspects of Sharia-compliant real estate transactions, which can be quite different from Western legal practices.

Firstly, Islamic law prohibits the payment or receipt of interest (Riba).

As a result, financing methods for property purchases often involve alternative arrangements like Murabaha (cost-plus financing) or Ijara (lease-to-own). These methods are more complex than conventional mortgages and require a different approach to property financing.

Secondly, Sharia law has specific rules regarding inheritance, which can significantly affect property ownership. For instance, property ownership might be distributed among family members in fixed shares as dictated by Islamic law.

This aspect can complicate the resale or transfer of ownership, and you should be aware of these implications.

Thirdly, there might be restrictions on how you can use the property, as certain activities deemed non-compliant with Islamic principles could be prohibited. This is an important consideration, especially if you plan to develop or change the use of the property.

Lastly, in case of disputes, local practices might favor resolution through Sharia-based mediation and arbitration rather than the conventional legal system.

This could involve community elders or religious leaders and represents a different approach to dispute resolution than you might be accustomed to.

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"Maghaz" or agricultural lands

Another unique and often overlooked aspect when buying residential property in Mauritania, particularly relevant to foreigners, is the customary practice surrounding "Maghaz" or agricultural lands.

In Mauritania, Maghaz refers to lands traditionally used for agriculture, which can have specific ownership and usage customs.

If you're considering purchasing property that includes or is adjacent to agricultural land, it's important to understand the Maghaz system. Ownership and use of these lands can be deeply rooted in local customs and might not be clearly defined through formal documentation.

This can lead to ambiguities in land rights and boundaries.

For example, the land you intend to buy may have been historically used by local farmers or herders under customary arrangements. These customary rights might not be legally documented but are respected and recognized within the community.

Purchasing such land without acknowledging these customary rights can lead to conflicts with local communities.

Furthermore, the use of agricultural land in Mauritania is often subject to seasonal and environmental variations.

This means that the value and utility of the land can fluctuate, which might not be immediately apparent if you're unfamiliar with local agricultural practices and climatic conditions.

The concept of "Moqaddem" system

Another specific and often unexpected pitfall in purchasing residential property in Mauritania, particularly for foreigners, involves the "Moqaddem" system.

This system is integral to Mauritanian culture and governance, especially in rural and traditional communities.

The Moqaddem system is a traditional form of local governance, where a Moqaddem, often a respected community elder or leader, plays a pivotal role in local decision-making, including matters related to property and land.

The influence of a Moqaddem in a community can be substantial, and their approval or disapproval can significantly impact property transactions.

For instance, if you're buying property in a community where the Moqaddem system is active, you might need to seek the Moqaddem's blessing or approval as part of the transaction process. This is particularly important in rural areas or in communities where traditional practices are strongly upheld.

The Moqaddem might also play a role in resolving any disputes related to the property, often through traditional mediation rather than formal legal processes.

The challenge here for a foreign buyer is navigating this traditional system, which operates alongside but distinctly from the formal legal system.

Understanding the social hierarchy and the role of the Moqaddem in the community is crucial.

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