Western Sahara

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Western Sahara (EH in ISO 3166-1) 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 the internationally-understood boundaries of 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), containing the majority of the population of the territory.

Western Sahara is on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.

It is disputed whether this territory is an integral part of the Kingdom of Morocco, or governed by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) that was set up by the Polisario Front movement. At present it is largely controlled and entirely claimed by Morocco.

The SADR is recognized by 44 nations (not including 31 nations that have cancelled their earlier recognitions and 5 nations that have frozen their relations), and a full member of the African Union.



Main article: History of Western Sahara

The history of Western Sahara begins with the arrival of the camel which facilitated trade and exchanges. Earlier, there were some Phonecian contacts but with no major 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 developped further and the region became a passage of caravans especially between Marrakech and Tombouctou in Mali. Soon later, Almoravids were able to control the area.

The first settlers of the Sahara are theorized to be the Beni Hassan, a Yemeni tribe.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, Spain created the colony of Spanish Sahara through successive treaties and agreements with local populations and France. Due to internal pressures following the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, and the global trend in decolonization, Spain planned to divest itself of the Sahara, and promised a referendum regarding independence. On November 6, 1975 the Green March into Western Sahara began when 300,000 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. As a result, Spain abandoned Western Sahara on November 14, 1975, repatriating even the Spanish corpses from its cemeteries. Morocco then virtually annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) in 1976. In 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal, Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory. A guerrilla war carried by the Polisario Front contesting Rabat's sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire by United Nations peacekeeping mission MINURSO.

The referendum, originally scheduled for 1992, was planned to give the indigenous population the option between independence or inclusion to Morocco, but has not taken place as of 2005. At the heart of the dispute lays 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)

A United States-backed document known as the "James 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 initially spawned from a Moroccan proposal. According to Baker's draft, Moroccan settlers 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 contradicts the Polisario's policy of only negotiating with 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.

Today the Baker II document appears politically dead, having led nowhere, and 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. 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 is 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, with 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.


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

Main articles: Politics of Western Sahara

The legal status of the territory and the question of its sovereignty is unresolved; the territory is contested by Morocco and Polisario Front.

The government of Morocco is a monarchy, with a parliament of elected officials. The Morocco-controlled parts of Western Sahara are divided into several provinces treated as integral parts of the kingdom.

The exiled government of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic 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 presently controls only the Tindouf refugee camps and the area east of the Moroccan Wall, which is more or less unpopulated.

See also Foreign relations of Morocco, Foreign relations of Western Sahara

Map of Western Sahara
Map of Western Sahara


Currently, Western Sahara is largely administered by Morocco. The extent of Morocco's administration is north and west of the Moroccan Wall (or berm), approximately two-thirds of the territory. The Moroccan 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 administered by the SADR.


NASA photo of El Aaiún
NASA photo of El Aaiún

Main article: Geography of Western Sahara

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.


Main article: Economy of Western Sahara

Western Sahara has few natural resources except phosphate and fishing waters, and lacks sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities. Its 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.

The refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, are wholly reliant on foreign and Algerian aid. Food, clothing and water are brought in by car and plane. Since the nineties a rudimentary monetary economy has evolved in the camps, after Spain started paying pensions to former recruited Sahrawi soldiers in its colonial army, and with money and merchandise brought in by Sahrawis working or studying abroad. A minor but significant addition comes from those pursuing traditional nomadic camel-herding in the Polisario-controlled parts of Western Sahara and in Mauritania.

Since the major oil findings in neighbouring Mauritania, there has been much speculation on the possibility of oil resources being located off the coast of Western Sahara. Despite the fact that findings remain inconclusive, both Morocco and the Polisario has made deals with oil and gas companies, and US and French companies (notably Total and Kerr-McGee) began prospecting on behalf of Morocco.


Main article: Demographics of Western Sahara

As of July 2004, an estimated 267,405 people (excluding the Moroccan army of some 160,000) live in the Rabat-controlled parts of Western Sahara. 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 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.

The Spanish census and MINURSO

A 1974 Spanish census claimed there were some 74,000 people in the area at the time, 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 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.

See the CIA World Factbook 2004


Main article: Culture of Western Sahara

The indigenous people of Western Sahara are the Sahrawis, a nomadic or Bedouin people who speak the Ḥassānīya dialect of Arabic, also spoken in northern Mauritania. They are of mixed Arab-Berber descent, but consider themselves Arab. It is theorized that they descend from the Beni Hassan, a Yemeni tribe supposed to have migrated across the desert in the 11th century.

The Sahrawis are Muslims of the Sunni sect and the Maliki law school. Their interpretation of Islam has traditionally being quite liberal and adapted to nomad life (i.e. generally functioning without mosques).

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. The organization governing the camps, the Polisario Front, has attempted to modernize the camps society, placing emphasis especially on education, the eradication of tribalism and the emancipation of women. The role of women in camps was enhanced by their shouldering of the main responsibility for the refugee camps and government bureaucracy during the war years, as virtually the entire male population was enrolled in the Polisario army.

Education was also assisted by refugee life. While teaching materials are still scarce, the "urbanization" of the refugee camps and the abundance of free time for camp dwellers (after the situation normalized circa 1977) greatly increased the effectiveness of literacy classes. Today, nearly 90% of refugee Sahrawis are able to read and write, the number having been less than 10% in 1975, and several thousands have reveived university educations in foreign countries as part of aid packages (mainly Algeria, Cuba, and Spain).

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 thousands 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.

See also

Further reading

  • Tony Hodges (1983), Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, Lawrence Hill Books (ISBN 0882081527)
  • Anthony G. Pazzanita and Tony Hodges (1994), Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara, Scarecrow Press (ISBN 0810826615)
  • Toby Shelley (2004), Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa's Last Colony?, Zed Books (ISBN 1842773410)
  • Erik Jensen (2005), Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate, International Peace Studies (ISBN 1588263053)

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