Western Sahara

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: African Countries; Countries

الصحراء الغربية
Al-Ṣaḥrā' al-Ġarbiyyah
Western Sahara
Location of Western Sahara
Capital n/a
Largest city Al `Uyūn (العيون)  (Arabic)
El Aaiún  (Spanish2)
Laâyoune  (French2)
Official languages Arabic
(Spanish widely spoken)
Government Divided1
 - Relinquished by Spain November 14, 1975 
 - SADR proclaimed February 27, 1976 
 - Total 266,000 km² ( 77th)
102,703 sq mi 
 - Water (%) negligible
 - Jul 2005 estimate 341,000 ( 177th)
 - Density 1.3/km² ( 228th)
3.4/sq mi
Currency Moroccan dirham ( MAD)
Time zone ( UTC+0)
Internet TLD
Calling code +2123
1 Mostly administrated by Morocco as its Southern Provinces. The " Free Zone" is the area that the Polisario Front claim to control on behalf of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on February 27, 1976).
2 Transliterations.
3 Code for Morocco; no code specific to Western Sahara has been issued by the ITU.

Western Sahara (Arabic: الصحراء الغربية; transliterated: al-Ṣaḥrā' al-Gharbīyah; Spanish: Sahara Occidental) is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands. It is a territory of northwestern Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The largest city is El Aaiún (Laâyoune), which is home to a majority of the population of the territory.

Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories since the 60s when it was a Spanish colony.

The Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front's Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) dispute control of the territory. Since a United Nations-sponsored cease-fire agreement in 1991, most of the territory has been administered by Morocco, the remainder by the SADR as the Free Zone. The SADR is recognized by 43 states, and a full member of the African Union. Moroccan territorial integrity has been supported by members of the Arab League, and by 25 states.


The earliest inhabitants of the Western Sahara in historical times were black agriculturalists called Bafour. Later they were to be replaced by the Berber population that still lives there. There may also have been some Phoenician contacts but with hardly any remaining influence.

The arrival of Islam in the 8th century played a major role in the development of relationships between Western Sahara and the neighbouring regions. Trade developed further and the region became a passage of caravans especially between Marrakech and Tombouctou in Mali. Soon Almoravids were able to control the area.

The Beni Hassan were the Arab bedouin tribes, that invaded the northern border-area of the Sahara in the 14th and 15th century. From them the Berbers took, over time, the Hassaniya language and a large part of their present cultural tradition.

Spanish province

During the first decade of the 20th century, after an agreement among the colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884, Spain took possession of the Western Sahara and declared it to be a Spanish protectorate. As internal political and social pressures in mainland Spain built up towards the end of Francisco Franco's rule, and as an effect of the global trend in decolonization, Spain began rapidly and even chaotically divesting itself of most of its remaining colonial possessions. Spain planned to divest itself of the Sahara, and in 1974-75 issued promises of a referendum on independence. This had been demanded by the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi nationalist organization fighting the Spanish since 1973.

However, the territory's neighbours also showed interest in the Spanish Sahara. Both Morocco and Mauritania claimed sovereignty over the territory based on competing traditional claims, arguing that its was artificially separated from their territories by the European colonial powers. The third neighbour of Spanish Sahara, Algeria, viewed these demands with suspicion, influenced also by its long-running rivalry with Morocco. After arguing for a process of decolonization guided by the United Nations, the government of Houari Boumédiènne committed itself in 1975 to assisting the Polisario Front, which opposed both Moroccan and Mauritanian claims and demanded full independence.

The UN attempted to settle these disputes through a visiting mission in late 1975, as well as a verdict from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which declared that the Sahrawi people possessed the right of self-determination. On November 6, 1975 the Green March into Western Sahara began when 350,000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the city of Tarfaya in southern Morocco and waited for a signal from King Hassan II of Morocco to cross into Western Sahara, in order to claim it for Greater Morocco.

Demands for independence

After the death of Franco in November, the new Spanish government abandoned Western Sahara in December, repatriating even Spanish corpses from its cemeteries. Morocco then annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara as its Southern Provinces, while Mauritania took the southern third as Tiris al-Gharbiyya. This however met staunch opposition from the Polisario, which had by now gained backing from Algeria and waged a guerrilla campaign. In 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal due to pressures from Polisario, Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory, and gradually contained the guerrillas through setting up the Moroccan Wall. The war ended in a 1991 cease-fire, overseen by the peacekeeping mission MINURSO, under the terms of the UN's Settlement Plan.

Stalling of the independence referendum

The referendum, originally scheduled for 1992, was planned to give the indigenous population the option between independence or inclusion to Morocco. As of 2006, however, it has not taken place. At the heart of the dispute lies the question of who can be registered as an indigenous voter. In 1997, the Houston Agreement made another attempt to implement the referendum, but failed.

Both sides blame each other for the stalling of the referendum. But while the Polisario has consistently asked for the UN to go ahead with the vote, standing only to lose from the status quo, Morocco has been troubled by the risk of losing a referendum or receiving a large enough vote against annexation to undermine years of nationalist rhetoric from the government. Indeed, shortly after the Houston Agreement, the kingdom officially declared that it was "no longer necessary" to include an option of independence on the ballot, offering instead autonomy. Erik Jensen, who played an administrative role in MINURSO, wrote that neither side would agree to a voter registration in which they were destined to lose (see Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate).

Baker Plan

A United States-backed document known as the " Baker peace plan" was discussed by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, and envisioned a future Western Sahara Authority (WSA), to be followed after five years by the referendum. It was rejected by both sides, although it was initially derived from a Moroccan proposal. According to Baker's draft, tens of thousands of post-annexation immigrants from Morocco proper (viewed by Polisario as settlers, but by Morocco as legitimate inhabitants of the area) would be granted the vote in the Sahrawi independence referendum, and the ballot would be split three-ways by the inclusion of an unspecified " autonomy", further undermining the independence camp. Also, Morocco was allowed to keep its army in the area and to retain the control over all security issues during both the autonomy years and the election.

In 2003, a new version of the plan was made official, with some additions spelling out the powers of the WSA, making it less reliant on the Moroccan devolution. It also provided further detail on the referendum process in order to make it harder to stall or subvert. This second draft, commonly known as Baker II, was accepted by the Polisario as a "basis of negotiations" to the surprise of many. This appeared to abandon Polisario's previous position of only negotiating based on the standards of voter identification from 1991. After that, the draft quickly garnered widespread international support, culminating in the UN Security Council's unanimous endorsement of the plan in the summer of 2003.

Western Sahara today

Today the Baker II document appears politically dead, with Baker having resigned his post at the UN in 2004. His resignation followed several months of failed attempts to get Morocco to enter into formal negotiations on the plan, but he met with rejection. The new king, Mohammed VI of Morocco, opposes the concept of a referendum on independence, and has said Morocco will never agree to one. In the same time, he supports, through his advising Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), a self-governing Western Sahara as an autonomous community within Morocco. His father, Hassan II of Morocco, initially supported the idea in principle in 1982, and in signed contracts in 1991 and 1997.

The UN has put forth no replacement strategy after the breakdown of Baker II, and renewed fighting may be a possibility. In 2005, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported increased military activity on both sides of the front and breaches of several cease-fire provisions against strengthening military fortifications.

Morocco has repeatedly tried to get Algeria into bilateral negotiations, receiving vocal support from France and occasionally (and currently) from the United States. These negotiations would define the exact limits of a Western Sahara autonomy under Moroccan rule, but only after Morocco's "inalienable right" to the territory was recognized as a precondition to the talks. The Algerian government has consistently refused, claiming it has neither the will nor the right to negotiate on the behalf of the Polisario Front.

Demonstrations and riots by supporters of independence and/or a referendum broke out in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara in May 2005, and were met by police. Several international human rights organizations have expressed concern at what they termed abuse by Moroccan security forces, and a number of Sahrawi activists have been jailed. Pro-independence Sahrawi sources, including the Polisario, have given these demonstrations the name " Independence Intifada", while sources supporting the Moroccan claims have attempted to minimize the events as being of limited importance. International press and other media coverage has been sparse, and reporting is complicated by the Moroccan government's policy of strictly controlling independent media coverage within the territory.

Demonstrations and protests are still occurring in late 2006, after Morocco declared in February that it was contemplating a plan for devolving a limited variant of autonomy to the territory, but still explicitly refused any referendum on independence. The Polisario Front has intermittently threatened to resume fighting, referring to the Moroccan refusal of a referendum as a breach of the cease-fire terms, but most observers seem to consider armed conflict unlikely.


Police checkpoint at suburbs of Laayoune.
Police checkpoint at suburbs of Laayoune.

The legal status of the territory and the question of its sovereignty remains unresolved; the territory is contested between Morocco and Polisario Front. It is considered a non self-governed territory by the United Nations.

The government of Morocco is a formally constitutional monarchy under Muhammad VI with a bicameral parliament. The last elections to the lower house were deemed reasonably free and fair by international observers, but the capacity to appoint the government, dissolve parliament and other powers, remains in the hands of the monarch. The Morocco-controlled parts of Western Sahara are divided into several provinces treated as integral parts of the kingdom. The Moroccan government heavily subsidizes the Saharan provinces under its control with cut-rate fuel and related subsidies, to appease nationalist dissent and attract immigrants - or settlers - from loyalist Sahrawi and other communities in Morocco proper.

The exiled government of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is a form of single-party parliamentary and presidential system, but according to its constitution, this will be changed into a multi-party system at the achievement of independence. It is presently based at the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, which it controls. It also claims to control the part of Western Sahara to the east of the Moroccan Wall, as the " Free Zone". This area is more or less unpopulated and the Morrocan government views it as a no-man's land patrolled by UN troops.

Human rights

The Western Sahara conflict has resulted in severe human rights abuses, most notably the displacement of tens of thousands of Sahrawi civilians from the country, the forced expropriation and expulsion of tens of thousends of Moroccan civilians by the Algerian government from Algeria as well as violations of human rights and serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions by the Polisario Front and Algerian government.

Both Morocco and the Polisario accuse each other of violating the human rights of the populations under their control, in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, respectively. Morocco and organisations such as France Libertés consider Algeria to be directly responsible for any crimes committed on its territory, and accuse the country of having been directly involved in such violations.

Morocco has been repeatedly criticised by international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International , Human Rights Watch and the World Organization Against Torture , Freedom House , Reporters Without Borders , the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for its actions in Western Sahara.

Polisario has received criticism from the French organization France Libertes on its treatment of Moroccan prisoners-of-war, and on its general behaviour in the Tindouf refugee camps in reports by the Belgian organization ESISC, or European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre.. A number of former Polisario officials who have defected to Morocco accuse the organisation of abuse of human rights and sequestration of the population in Tindouf .

During the war (1975-91), both sides accused each other of targeting civilians. Moroccan claims of Polisario terrorism has generally little to no support abroad, with the USA, EU and UN all refusing to include the group on their lists of terrorist organizations. Polisario leaders maintain that they are ideologically opposed to terrorism, and insist that collective punishment and forced disappearances among Sahrawi civilians should be considered state terrorism on the part of Morocco .

Administrative division

Currently, Western Sahara is largely administered by Morocco. The extent of Morocco's administration is north and west of the border wall, approximately two-thirds of the territory. The official Moroccan government name for Western Sahara is the " Southern Provinces", which indicate Río de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra. When the territory was a dependency of Spain, the same two subdivisions existed. The remaining area is largely empty and control of it is claimed by the Polisario Front as liberated territory. It is divided into military zones for military/administrative purposes and for MINURSO peace-keeping, but the absence of a settled population has made further administrative structures unnecessary. For information on the subdivisions of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the refugee camps of Algeria, see Tindouf.

During the joint Moroccan-Mauritanian control of the area, the Mauritanian-controlled part, roughly corresponding to Saquia el-Hamra, was known as Tiris al-Gharbiyya.


NASA photo of El Aaiún.
NASA photo of El Aaiún.
Satellite image of Western Sahara, generated from raster graphics data supplied by The Map Library
Satellite image of Western Sahara, generated from raster graphics data supplied by The Map Library

Western Sahara is located in Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco. It also borders Algeria to the northeast. The land is some of the most arid and inhospitable on the planet, but is rich in phosphates in Bou Craa.


Aside from its rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters, Western Sahara has few natural resources and lacks sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities. There is speculation that there may be rich off-shore oil and natural gas fields, but the debate persists as to whether these resources can be profitably exploited, and if this would be legally permitted due to the non- decolonized status of Western Sahara (see below).

Western Sahara's economy is centred around nomadic herding, fishing, and phosphate mining. Most food for the urban population is imported. All trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government. The government has encouraged citizens to relocate to the territory by giving subsidies and price controls on basic goods. These heavy subsidies have created a state-dominated economy in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara, with the Moroccan government as the single biggest employer.

Exploitation debate

After reasonably exploitable oil fields were located in neighbouring Mauritania, speculation intensified on the possibility of major oil resources being located off the coast of Western Sahara. Despite the fact that findings remain inconclusive, both Morocco and the Polisario have made deals with oil and gas exploration companies. US and French companies (notably Total and Kerr-McGee) began prospecting on behalf of Morocco.

In 2002, Hans Corell, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and head of its Office of Legal Affairs issued a legal opinion on the matter. This opinion stated that while exploration of the area was permitted, exploitation was not, on the basis that Morocco is not a recognized administrative power of the territory, and thus lacks the capacity to issue such licenses. After pressures from corporate ethics-groups, Total S.A. pulled out.

In May 2006 the remaining company Kerr-McGee also left following sales of numerous share holders like the National Norwegian Oil Fund, due to continued pressure from NGOs and corporate groups.

Despite the UN report and the development regarding the exploration of oil, the European Union wants to exploit fishing resources in waters outside Western Sahara and has signed a fishing treaty with Morocco.


The indigenous population of Western Sahara is known as Sahrawis. These are Hassaniya-speaking tribes of mixed Arab- Berber heritage, effectively continuations of the tribal groupings of Hassaniya speaking Moorish tribes extending south into Mauritania and north into Morocco as well as east into Algeria. The Sahrawis are traditionally nomadic bedouins, and can be found in all surrounding countries. War and conflict has lead to major displacements of the population.

As of July 2004, an estimated 267,405 people (excluding the Moroccan army of some 160,000) live in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara. Morocco has engaged in "Moroccanization" of the area, bringing in large numbers of settlers in anticipation of a UN-administered referendum on independence. While many of them are from Sahrawi tribal groups extending up into southern Morocco, some are also non-Sahrawi Moroccans from other regions. The settler population is today thought to outnumber the indigenous Western Sahara Sahrawis. The precise size and composition of the population is subject to political controversy.

The Polisario-controlled parts of Western Sahara are barren and have no resident population, but they are travelled by small numbers of Sahrawis herding camels, going back and forth between the Tindouf area and Mauritania. However, the presence of mines scattered throughout the territory by both the Polisario and the Moroccan army makes it a dangerous way of life.

The Spanish census and MINURSO

A 1974 Spanish census claimed there were some 74,000 Sahrawis in the area at the time (in addition to approximately 20,000 Spanish residents), but this number is likely to be on the low side, due to the difficulty in counting a nomad people.

In December of 1999 the United Nations' MINURSO mission announced that it had identified 86,425 eligible voters for the independence referendum that was supposed to be held under the 1991 Settlement agreement and the 1997 Houston accords. By "eligible voter" the UN referred to any Sahrawi over 18 years of age that was part of the Spanish census or could prove his/her descent from someone who was. These 86,425 Sahrawis were dispersed between Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara and the refugee camps in Algeria, as well as smaller numbers in Mauritania and other places of exile. These numbers cover only Sahrawis 'indigenous' to the Western Sahara during the Spanish colonial period, not the total number of "ethnic" Sahrawis (i.e, members of Sahrawi tribal groupings). The number was highly politically significant due to the expected organization of a referendum on independence.

The Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, home base of the Polisario, hold approximately 165,000 Sahrawi refugees from the area according to the last count made by the UN. Morocco disputes this number, saying it is much lower, and insists that many if not most of the refugees are non-Sahrawi Africans who have relocated there in order to profit from aid efforts. The UNHCR and the numerous other aid agencies that are present in the camps have found no evidence of this.


The major ethnic group of the Western Sahara are the Sahrawis, a nomadic or Bedouin tribal or ethnic group speaking Ḥassānīya dialect of Arabic, also spoken in much of Mauritania. They are of mixed Arab- Berber descent, but claim descent from the Beni Hassan, a Yemeni tribe supposed to have migrated across the desert in the 11th century.

Physically indistinguishable from the Hassaniya speaking Moors of Mauritania, the Sahwari people differ from their neighbors partly due to different tribal affiliations (as tribal confederations cut across present modern boundaries) and partly as a consequence of their exposure to Spanish colonial domination. Surrounding territories were generally under French colonial rule.

Like other neighboring Saharan Bedouin and Hassaniya groups, the Sahrawis are Muslims of the Sunni sect and the Maliki law school. Local religious custom 'urf is, like other Saharan groups, heavily influenced by pre-Islamic Berber and African practices, and differs substantially from urban practices. For example, Sahrawi Islam has traditionally functioned without mosques in the normal sense of the word, in an adaptation to nomadic life.

The originally clan- and tribe-based society underwent a massive social upheaval in 1975, when a part of the population was forced into exile and settled in the refugee camps of Tindouf, Algeria. Families were broken up by the fight. For developments among this population, see Sahrawi and Tindouf Province.

The Moroccan government considerably invested in the social and economic development of the Moroccan controlled Western Sahara with special emphasis on education, modernisation and infrastructure. El-Aaiun in particular has been the target of heavy government investment, and has grown rapidly. Several thousand Sahrawis study in Moroccan universities. Literacy rates are appreciated at some 50% of the population.

To date, there have been few thorough studies of the culture due in part to the political situation. Some language and culture studies, mainly by French researchers, have been performed on Sahrawi communities in northern Mauritania.

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