As one of countries starting with W, Western Sahara ( Arabic الصحراء الغربية, DMG aṣ-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Ġarbiyya, Central Atlas Tamazight ⵜⴰⵏⴻⵥⵕⵓⴼⵜ ⵜⵓⵜⵔⵉⵎⵜ Taneẓṛuft Tutrimt; Sahara Occidental in Spanish ) is a territory on the Atlantic coast of Northwest Africa that was claimed by Morocco and largely annexed after the departure of the former colonial power Spain in 1975. Morocco regards the area, which was in a loosely dependent relationship with it in the pre-colonial period, as part of its territory. It has about 597,000 inhabitants according to a 2019 estimate.
The left-wing “Liberation Front” of the Sahrawis (the people of Western Sahara), the Polisario Front, which emerged during Spanish colonial times, fights for an independent state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, throughout Western Sahara. Since the 1991 ceasefire, the Polisario Front has controlled a “ free zone ” in eastern and southern Western Sahara, from the border with Algeria to the Atlantic coast.
The United Nations are demanding a referendum on the final status of the area under international law. So far, no agreement has been reached between Morocco and the representatives of the Saharawi people on the modalities of holding such a referendum. The main point of contention here is the question of whether, in addition to integration or autonomy, independence for Western Sahara from Morocco should also be an option in this referendum. Morocco rejected the latter as an option in 2004.
The Western Sahara region is located in north-west Africa on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and covers an area of 266,000 km². It is divided geographically into a northern part, which formed the province of Saguia el Hamra during the Spanish colonial period and in which gently undulating gravel and scree deserts ( Hammada ) predominate. The terrain gradually rises inland from the coast to an altitude of around 400 metres, with the highest elevations exceeding 700 meters in the north near the Algerian border. The southern area roughly corresponds to the former province of Río de Oro and is almost completely flat with isolated sand dunes ( erg ), which provide little variety in the uniform, almost vegetation-free scree plain. The third type of landscape is represented by dry river valleys ( wadis ) that occasionally carry water after the rainy season, of which the Saguia el Hamra is the most important for the oasis economy. It is the longest river in the country at 350 kilometers until it ends at Aaiún just before the Atlantic Ocean.
Climate, flora and fauna
A desert climate prevails, rain is rare and fog formation is common near the coast. More lush vegetation can only be found around the river oases and some gueltas. One finds animal species adapted to the dry habitat, for example gerbils and thorn-tailed agamids. The caves on the Atlantic coast, particularly on the Cabo Blanco Peninsula, are home to the largest populations of the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal.
Morocco divides Western Sahara into the five provinces of Aousserd, Boujdour, Es Semara, Laâyoune and Oued ed Dahab. It is not known whether the Polisario, which controls the east of the country, made a different division into provinces.
The largest cities are (2 September 2004 census):
- El Aaiún: 183,691 inhabitants
- Ad-Dakhla: 58,104 inhabitants
- Smara: 40,347 inhabitants
- Boujdour: 36,843 inhabitants
- El Marsa: 10,229 inhabitants
About 597,000 people live in the territory of Western Sahara (estimate 2019). Of these, at least half are Arabs and Arabized Berbers. Of these, 180,000 belong to the Moroccan military.
Only about 105,000 Sahrawis, who originally settled the area as Arab nomads, still live in Western Sahara. Between 165,000 and 200,000 Sahrawis live outside the occupied territory, in five refugee camps in Algeria, in Tindouf province, near the Western Sahara border.
Moroccan Arabic is predominantly spoken in Western Sahara by immigrants from the north, as well as the Hassania dialect of the original population before Moroccan settlement, a regional form of Arabic that is also widespread in neighboring Mauritania. Almost 100 percent of the residents are Muslims.
Most Sahrawis have Moroccan, Algerian or Spanish nationality.
According to United Nations figures, the average life expectancy in Western Sahara was 68.4 years between 2010 and 2015. For women it was 69.8 years and for men it was 65.9 years.
Thanks to a high birth rate and immigration from Morocco, the area has experienced exponential population growth since the 1950s.
Phoenician settlements have hardly left any traces, and only with the introduction of the camel did the area become important as a caravan transit point. After the advance of Islam, Islamic groups emerged in what is now Western Sahara, which later also ruled a large part of North Africa and southern Spain as Almoravids.
In 1884, the Spaniards established the Villa Cisneros base on the Rio de Oro peninsula, which later became the city of Ad-Dakhla. At the 1884-1885 Congo Conference in Berlin, the colonial powers divided Africa among themselves. Spain was given Western Sahara. The influential Sheikh Ma el-Ainin organized the resistance against the French and Spanish colonial armies in north-west Africa. He founded the town of Smara around 1900, which developed into the religious, political and economic center of the region. The city, the cultural center of the Sahara, was destroyed by the French in 1913, along with its important Islamic university and library. After decades of resistance by the Sahrawis, the area of Western Sahara was occupied by Spanish troops.
Since 1963, the territory has been on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. From 1965 onwards, the UN General Assembly repeatedly demanded the decolonization of Western Sahara in resolutions that were not binding under international law. In May 1973, the Sahrawi liberation front Frente Polisario was founded, which took up the armed struggle against the Spanish colonial power.
In 1974, Morocco’s King Hassan II demanded that Western Sahara be annexed to Morocco. In May 1975, a UN delegation in Western Sahara stated that the population wanted independence and that the Polisario Front was giving widespread support. The International Court of Justice , whose jurisdiction in the matter was disputed by Morocco, rejected claims of sovereignty by Morocco and Mauritania in the same year. Nevertheless, in October 1975 the Moroccan army began to attack Western Sahara.
After the death of Francisco Franco, Spain left the area. In 1975, about 350,000 Moroccans moved into the former colony in the so-called Green March to assert Moroccan claims to the area.
On February 26, 1976, an assembly of Sahrawi tribal leaders agreed to the partition of Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, whereupon the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was proclaimed on February 27, 1976 by the Polisario. Morocco did not recognize this state. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was admitted to the Organization of African Unity in 1984. In response, Morocco withdrew from the Organization of African Unity and for 33 years – until January 2017 – was the only African country not to be a member of that organization and the African Union that emerged from it.
Morocco declared the annexation of the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara in 1976 and the rest of the territory in 1979 after Mauritania withdrew from the area. These annexations were not recognized by the United Nations. Likewise, the claims of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic to the territory of Western Sahara were not recognized without the holding of the referendum requested by the United Nations.
In 1991, a ceasefire agreement was signed between Morocco and the Polisario. The territory of Western Sahara is divided by a fortified and mined border facility. It was built by Morocco along the Armistice Line.
The United Nations is present throughout Western Sahara with a permanent observer mission, MINURSO. The final status of the area is unclear, since Morocco, contrary to what was originally agreed, will not hold a referendum on the future or independence of the area.
In November 2020, the Polisario declared the end of the 29-year ceasefire due to Morocco’s inaction. As a result, fighting between Morocco and the Polisario flared up again.
In December 2020, Morocco became the fourth Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel as a state, as announced by US President Donald Trump and his advisor, son-in-law Jared Kushner. In return, the United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the contested conflict region of Western Sahara. This was judged a prestige diplomatic success for the African country. The US administration dispatched Ambassador to Morocco David T. Fischer to Ad-Dakhla on January 16, 2021 to prepare for the opening of a consulate in Western Sahara.
Economically, large parts of the country are still undeveloped and the road network is sparse. The main economic sectors are fishing, the mining of mineral resources (especially phosphate, the deposit is considered one of the largest in the world) and the cultivation of date palms ( oasis economy ). The west coast is said to have great potential for generating wind energy. The entire economy of the western parts of the former Spanish colony is supported by taxes from Moroccoheavily subsidized and greatly expanded as part of the settlement by Moroccans, while the unoccupied eastern part and the refugee camps in Algeria are largely dependent on international support.
Of particular importance is the phosphate mine at Bou Craa, which is linked to the Port of El Aaiún by the world’s longest conveyor belt. Before the ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the conveyor belt was often destroyed by Polisario Front militants.
Morocco is increasingly opening up Western Sahara for tourism. In particular, the beaches near Dakhla are already being used for tourism. However, the tourist infrastructure is still poorly developed, although there are now direct Spanish flights from the neighboring Canary Islands. Package tourism hardly takes place.