The term was first used by Mauritania's first president, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, as he began claiming the territory then known as Spanish Sahara even before Mauritanian independence in 1960. In 1957, Ould Daddah stated
- "I therefore call on our brothers in the Spanish Sahara to dream of this economic and spiritual Greater Mauritania of which we cannot speak at present. I address to them and I ask you to repeat to them a message of friendship, a call for concord between all the Moors of the Atlantic, in Azawad and from the Draa to the borders of Senegal."
The basis for his claim was the close ethnic and cultural ties between the Mauritanian Moors and the Sahrawis of Spanish Sahara, in effect forming two subsets of the same tribal Arab-Berber population. The Greater Mauritania region is largely coterminous with the Hassaniya Arabic language area, and had historically been part of the pre-modern Bilad Chinguetti (Arabic: بلاد شنقيط Bilād Šinqīṭ), the Land of Chinguetti, a religious center in contemporary Mauritania.
The claim to the Spanish Sahara was again popularized by the regime in the early 1970s, as Spain prepared to depart the colony. Mauritania then feared Moroccan expansion towards its border, against the background of competing claims for a "Greater Morocco" that had previously included not only Spanish Sahara, but also Mauritania in its entirety. (Morocco had refused to recognize Mauritania from independence in 1960, although relations were established in 1969.)
C. R. Pennell writes,
- "The Mauritanian President, Mokhtar Ould Dada, talked about a 'Greater Mauritania', a supposed common culture shared by Arabic-speaking tribes between the Senegal river and the Dràa valley. The idea helped build unity at home, and to hold back Moroccan expansionism."
Say Thompson and Adloff,
- "From the outset of his political career, Daddah voiced an irredentist policy with regard to the Western Sahara, with striking perseverance but also without flamboyance, with less than wholehearted backing by his people, and with smaller means at his disposal than those of Morocco. Realism having always characterised Daddah's appraisal of Mauritania's status, he progressively reduced his territorial demands from those of an area larger than the entire Spanish Sahara to what he called Western Tiris, or Tiris El Gharbia."
Mauritanian claims to the territory were thus used to stave off the perceived threat of Moroccan expansionism, and to entice Spain into dividing the territory between Morocco and Mauritania in the Madrid Accords. This, however, did not take into account an Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that had decided in late 1975 that the people of Western Sahara had a right to self-determination, to be exercised freely in the form of a choice between integration with one or both of Mauritania and Morocco, or setting up an independent state. The Mauritanian portion of the territory, corresponding to the southern half of Río de Oro, or one-third of the entire territory, was renamed Tiris al-Gharbiyya.
The takeover was violently opposed by a pre-existing indigenous independence movement, the Polisario Front, which had gained support from Algeria. The ensuing war went badly for Mauritania, and Ould Daddah's government fell in 1978. The country left Tiris al-Gharbiyya the following year, renouncing all claims to any part of Western Sahara, and recognizing the Polisario Front as its people's legitimate representative. Relations with Rabat deteriorated rapidly, and amid allegations of Moroccan backing for attempted coups and minor armed clashes, Mauritania drew closer to Algeria and the Polisario. The government later established formal relations with the Front's government-in-exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as a recognized sovereign over the territory.
The vision of Greater Mauritania holds little appeal in today's Mauritania, and it is not pursued by any major political faction. While still recognizing the Sahrawi republic, Mauritania has largely mended relations with Morocco and now generally seeks to stay out of the Western Sahara dispute, which remains unresolved.
Notes and references
- Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, "Mauritania: A Saharan Frontier State", Journal of North Africa Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3-4, Sep-Dec. 2005, p. 506, n. 17.
- Rachel Warner. "CHAPTER 1. Historical Setting: Conflict in the Western Sahara: Background to Mauritanian Policy: Internal Factors." A Country Study: Mauritania. Library of Congress Country Studies. June 1988. Retrieved 20 March 2009.
- Bill Weinberg. Review of Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony? by Toby Shelley. Middle East Policy. Volume XII, Fall 2005, Number 3. Retrieved 20 March 2009.
- Rachel Warner. "CHAPTER 1. Historical Setting: Conflict in the Western Sahara: Background to Mauritanian Policy." A Country Study: Mauritania. Library of Congress Country Studies. June 1988. Retrieved 20 March 2009.
- C. R. Pennell. Morocco since 1830: A History. New York University Press, 2000. p. 336. (ISBN 0-8147-6676-5)
- Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff. The Western Saharans. Background to Conflict. Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. p. 270. (ISBN 0-389-20148-0)
- Western Sahara: Summary of the Summary of the Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975. International Court of Justice website. Retrieved 20 March 2009.
- Rachel Warner. "CHAPTER 1. Historical Setting: Conflict in the Western Sahara: Fighting the Desert War: Overthrow of the Ould Daddah Regime." A Country Study: Mauritania. Library of Congress Country Studies. June 1988. Retrieved 20 March 2009.
- Rachel Warner. "CHAPTER 1. Historical Setting: The Haidalla Regime: Consolidation of Power." A Country Study: Mauritania. Library of Congress Country Studies. June 1988. Retrieved 20 March 2009.
- Douglas E. Ashford, Johns Hopkins University, "The Irredentist Appeal in Morocco and Mauritania", The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 5, 1962-12, p. 641-651.
- Tony Hodges (1983), Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, Lawrence Hill Books. (ISBN 0-88208-152-7)
- John Mercer (1976), Spanish Sahara, George Allen & Unwid Ltd. (ISBN 0-04-966013-6)
- Jacob Mundy. "How the US and Morocco seized Western Sahara." Le Monde Diplomatique. January 2006.
- Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, "Mauritania: A Saharan Frontier State", Journal of North Africa Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3-4, Sep-Dec. 2005, p. 491-506.
- Anthony G. Pazzanita (1996), Historical Dictionary of Mauritania, 2nd ed, Scarecrow Press.
- Anthony G. Pazzanita (2006), Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara, 3rd ed, Scarecrow Press.
- C. R. Pennell, (2000), Morocco since 1830. A History, New York University Press. (ISBN 0-8147-6676-5)
- Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff (1980), The Western Saharans. Background to Conflict, Barnes & Noble Books. (ISBN 0-389-20148-0)