Gas: Mauritanian Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha in BP’s shadow

By Julien Clémençot, special correspondent in Nouakchott
Posted on Friday, 15 July 2022 15:13

Maurilog's Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha.

The president of logistics company Maurilog, Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha, is awaiting BP's contract decision, and gas production at the GTA field should begin in 2023. We take a look back at the career of this entrepreneur and former minister.

From the roof of the five-storey building that Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Yaha is constructing, the chairman and CEO of Maurilog has a 360-degree view of the port of Nouakchott. On one side is the container terminal; on the other, the 65,000-square-metre logistics platform that is used to store the equipment he makes available to the oil and gas company BP and its subcontractors such as Technip, Baker Hughes and Schlumberger. Cables, drill pipes, lifting equipment – everything is impeccably arranged. Further along the port, the boss has installed two containers in an area of almost 40,000 square metres to receive contaminated materials during the exploration and production phases. “When they are full, they are transported to BP’s facilities in the UK in a specially chartered freighter,” he says.

Ould Yaha is constantly mindful of the specifications imposed by his partners. He’s the kind of businessman who walks around his buildings and sheds at the end of the day, picking up the tools, nails or screws that workers have left behind. “It’s a requirement imposed by our contracts that has become a state of mind,” explains the Atar native. In order to pass on this discipline to his 220 employees, he relies on two former British soldiers and a dozen expatriates, while the rest of his staff are 100% Mauritanian.

Lobbying governments

In Nouakchott, the businessman is one of the few to already benefit from the activity created by the discovery of the Grand Tortue Ahmeyim – GTA – (Ahmeyim Great Turtle) mega-gas field, uncovered in 2016 off the coast of Saint-Louis, straddling Senegalese and Mauritanian territorial waters. After an initial investment phase of more than $5bn, BP should begin exploiting this field at the end of 2023 by producing 2.5m tonnes of gas per year.

By then, the British company will have decided whether to renew its logistics contract with Maurilog for another four years or whether to award it to its competitors Bolloré or MCI. The answer is still pending. The involvement of the two governments, which are also GTA shareholders and are each pushing their own candidate, is slowing the decision down. “It should not take long because the contract is due to start in January and several months of preparation will be needed if BP wants to change providers,” says a source close to the case. In addition to the oil industry, Maurilog also transports hydrocarbons for the miner Kinross.

Some former ministers and Mauritanian investors point to the advantages that they say Ould Yaha obtained from his proximity to former president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz so as to make this company and his other businesses prosper. The two men, who belong to the Ouled Bousbaa tribe, had a good relationship. The entrepreneur points out that he has never benefited from a single public contract in his entire career and lists the numerous audits imposed by his partners that he has undergone. In 2021 the parliamentary commission investigating suspicions of the former head of state’s involvement in corruption and money laundering heard his testimony, but he was not implicated.

Like other businessmen, at first the CEO did not have a strong relationship with the former president, who took power in a coup and whom Ould Yaha had privately criticised.

Inquiry commission

At the time, he had just spent more than a year promoting private investment at the request of Prime Minister Zeine Ould Zeidane, to whom he was very close, with the particular aim of preparing the December 2007 consulting group under the aegis of the World Bank. Appointed to the rank of minister, he had obtained the right not to participate in the government and to recruit his own collaborators from outside the administration.

During his hearing before the parliamentary committee, MPs were more interested in his contract with Chinese consortium Poly Hong Dong, which has been fishing and processing fish in the country since 2010. Many of his compatriots thought that he was a shareholder, which Ould Yaha denied, challenging anyone to provide evidence to the contrary. “I accompanied this group during its installation and, to be completely [transparent], I now rent it 20 artisanal fishing boats,” he said.

For the time being, Ould Yaha assured us that he does not receive any dividends from Maurilog, but lives off its various activities related to the fisheries sector. Bought at a low price in 2014, the former DB Schenker subsidiary had to be put back on its feet: its equipment had to be renewed and the debts accumulated by the German company towards its suppliers had to be paid off. “In total, I invested about $25m. For example, I paid $2.7m to the leasing company that supplies me with equipment,” says its sole shareholder. In 2021, the oil logistics business generated $20m in revenue.

Octopus traps

On the other hand, fishing provides Ould Yaha with a nice lifestyle ($10m in 2021): he owns an imposing villa in the city centre, adjoining the small building he erected to house the offices of Maurinvest, his group’s holding company, and he also owns a comfortable guest house that accommodates Maurilog expatriates.

It was in the early 1990s that Ould Yaha became interested in this still very small-scale sector.  He had been back from France for a little over a year after having graduated from the École Supérieure de Mécanique. After having worked for a few months managing his uncle’s trawler, he was looking to set up his own business when he met some South Koreans who were working on the boat. With financial assistance from his family, he decided to start a factory with one of the Koreans, making the cement traps used in Asia for octopus. The success was immediate and the company diversified by selling ropes, anchors and by granting payment facilities to fishermen. Quickly copied, the entrepreneur abandoned the cement traps in order to sell polystyrene boxes for transporting the fish. Here again, he found the right expertise and bought his machines from the French subsidiary of the German group Kurtz.

In the meantime, Yamaha sought him out to distribute its oil to fishermen. “Most of them were using two-stroke engines, but they didn’t mix the oil properly and the equipment was very quickly damaged,” says the CEO. A quarter of a century later, the exclusivity contract that links him to the Japanese group is still active and Ould Yaha is proud to show the 2020 video with the CEO of Yamaha Motors thanking him personally for the quality of his work.

Decisive encounters

Ould Yaha often associates the major stages of his career with the encounters he made. In the mid-1990s, he was affected by his participation in a French training course organised by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD). In Paris, he met the heads of Alcatel, Saint-Gobain and Société Générale. At the same time, he met Jean-François Damour, head of La Criée restaurants and owner of a fish factory in Concarneau, Brittany.

Impressed, the Mauritanian entrepreneur managed to convince the Frenchman to create a fish processing plant in Nouakchott. This project won Ould Yaha the first financing granted to a Mauritanian by the European Investment Bank. This episode is said to be what awoke the intense dislike of Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, who had been the most powerful businessman in Mauritania during the reign of President Maaouiya Ould Taya until his voluntary exile over the last decade. Via his bank, Ould Bouamatou had managed to be involved in many of the country’s most attractive projects.

From 2000 to 2019, the processing factory would supply all the establishments of the Damour family, whose members have become close friends over the years, as well as new clients such as Eurodisney and the Buffalo restaurants. Forced to shut down before the pandemic to bring it up to standard, Ould Yaha is currently working on a new processing unit, which will go further in the preparation of fish, again in association with his French partner. Studies are underway and the construction of this project, estimated at more than €5m, should start before the end of the year.

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