Western Sahara

POPULATION: 261,794 (2014)

AREA: 97,000 sq. mi. (252,000 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: Arabic (official); Berber dialects

NATIONAL CURRENCY: Moroccan dirham


CITIES: El-Aaiun (Laayoune), Cabo Bojador, Bu Craa, Smara (Semara), Ad Dakhla

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Less than 2 in. (50 mm)

ECONOMY: GDP per capita: N/A


  • Agricultural: fish
  • Manufacturing: handicrafts
  • Mining: phosphates

GOVERNMENT: Claimed and administered by Morocco since 1979, but independence movements and guerrilla warfare have left the sovereignty of the land unresolved. The UN administered a cease fire in 1991, and the government remains in transition.


Western Sahara

Western Sahara is a former colony on the northwestern coast of Africa whose status remains unresolved. Once an overseas province of Spain, it was called Spanish Sahara until 1976. Since that time, Western Sahara has been the subject of competing claims by various African nations. Furthermore, Polisario, a political party in Western Sahara, wants to make the region an independent state.

Land and People

With an area of about 102,000 square miles, Western Sahara borders the Atlantic Ocean, MOROCCO, ALGERIA, and MAURITANIA. Located in the SAHARA DESERT, it is barren and dry, with an average yearly rainfall of less than two inches. Western Sahara has two main areas: Rio de Oro in the south and Saguia el Hamra in the north. The indigenous people of Western Sahara are the Sahrawi—a mixture of BERBERS, who have lived in the region for about 2,000 years, and Arabs, who migrated there in the 1200s. Traditionally the Sahrawi were nomadic herders and traders but during the colonial era they established some permanent settlements. El Aaiun, near the coast, was the colonial capital and is still the major town. Smara, located inland at an oasis, contains historic Muslim monuments.

History and Government

In the past the region that is now Western Sahara has been linked to various Muslim states that rose and fell in Morocco. However, it was never formally part of Morocco. In 1884 Spain claimed the region. The Spanish planned to use it as a base for further colonization in North Africa, but were prevented from expanding by the French in Mauritania.

In the 1930s an independence movement emerged in Morocco, and its supporters viewed Spanish Sahara as part of Morocco. After Morocco became independent in 1956, it claimed Spanish Sahara and sent troops to occupy the region. Spanish forces drove the Moroccans back. In the 1960s Mauritania also claimed Spanish Sahara, and valuable deposits of phosphates—minerals used in making fertilizer—were discovered in the region.

Competition over Spanish Sahara increased in the early 1970s, when Sahrawi seeking self-government formed Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro). In an effort to curb Morocco's power and influence in the region, Algeria supported Polisario. Outbreaks of guerrilla fighting by Polisario members led Spain to withdraw its claim to the colony in 1976. After the departure of the Spanish forces, Mauritania and Morocco divided Western Sahara. However, Polisario began attacking the outposts of the two powers.

In 1979 Mauritania made a peace agreement with Polisario and left the territory, but Morocco has continued to claim Western Sahara and to mine its phosphates. The UNITED NATIONS has proposed holding an election in which the Sahrawi could decide whether to join Morocco or to establish an independent state. However, plans for the election have been delayed several times. During the late 1980s and 1990s, relations between Morocco and Algeria improved, and Algeria's support of Polisario declined. At the same time Morocco established tens of thousands of settlers in Western Sahara. (See also Independence Movements, Minerals and Mining, North Africa: Geography and Population, North Africa: History and Cultures.)