Western Sahara is a disputed territory in North Africa that borders Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Atlantic Ocean. It has a total area of 266,000 sq. km. It consists of mostly desert and is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. Its population is over 578,536, half of whom live in the largest city, El Asiun.
The area has been on the U.N. list of non-self-governing territories since a Moroccan demand in 1963 while it was still a Spanish territory. The U.N. directed Spain to decolonize the territory in 1966. The Saharwi national liberation movement, the Polisario Front, and the Kingdom of Morocco dispute control of the territory.
Morocco has controlled the territory with French backing since a ceasefire in 1991. A small portion is controlled by the SADR backed by Algeria. The major powers such as Russia and the U.S. have remained mostly neutral. Both sides have attempted to gain recognition for their claims internationally. The Polisario Front has received recognition from 81 nations and was extended African Union membership. Several African governments and the Arab League have recognized Morocco’s claims.
Agriculturalists called the Bafour were the earliest inhabitants of the Western Sahara. Berber speaking populations replaced or absorbed them and merged with Maqil Arab tribes.
When Islam arrived in the 8th century, relationships developed relations between what became Western Sahara, Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. Trade continued to develop and the area became a caravan highway. Berber Almohads and Almoravids controlled the area in the Middle Ages.
Around this time, Arab Bedouin tribes from Yemen invaded and reached the Sahara’s northern border area in the 14th and 15th centuries. Over five centuries, Berber tribes mixed with the Arab tribes and formed a unique Moroccan and Mauritanian culture.
Spain took control of Western Africa as a Spanish protectorate after the Berlin Conference in 1884. The area was administered as Spanish Morocco after 1939. The Saharan Lords, such as Maa El Ainain, provided lists recommending new governors. These lords paid respect to the Moroccan monarchy. Spanish rule began to lessen after World War II. During the end of Francisco Franco’s rule, pressure for decolonization rose.
Morocco and Mauritania argued Western Sahara had been artificially separated from them by European colonial powers. Algeria was suspicious of these demands due to its rivalry with Morocco. The Algerians committed to assisting the Polisario Front, a group opposing all claims and demanding independence.
The International Criminal Court declared that there were links between the territory and both Morocco and Mauritania, but the area’s people have the right to self-determination. In 1975, 350,000 unarmed Moroccans converged in Tarfaya to wait for a signal to cross the border in what was known as the Green March. Moroccan troops had invaded Western Sahara a few days before.
Demands for Independence
During General Franco’s last day and after the Green March, the Spanish entered into an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania. The agreement allowed Morocco and Mauritania to each annex the territories. Morocco controlled the northern two thirds and Mauritania the southern third. Spain abandoned its presence in the area within three months. The Polisario opposed the Moroccan and Mauritanian moves. In 1979, after Mauritania’s withdrawal, Morocco moved to control the rest of Western Sahara. It gradually set up a sand-berm known as the Morocco Wall to exclude guerilla fighters. Fighting ended with a 1991 cease fire, which was overseen by a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Stalling of the Referendum and Settlement Plan
The referendum to let the local population decide between independence or become part of Morocco was scheduled to occur in 1992. Morocco stalled the vote. The 1997 Houston Agreement attempted to revive the proposal, but it has not been successful. As of 2010, there has not been any progress. Morocco’s position is that there has been no agreement as to who is entitled to vote, making the referendum impossible. The Polisario have not come up with a solution to Morocco’s concerns. U.N. efforts to solve the crisis have not succeeded.
A plan, known as the Baker plan, was devised where there would be an autonomous Western Sahara Authority (WSA), which would be followed by the referendum after five years. Every person in the territory would be allowed to vote. Both sides rejected the proposal.
A new version of the plan was made official in 2003 when changes were made spelling out powers of the WSA. Details were also added to the referendum process. The Polisario accepted the new draft as a basis of negotiations. The U.N. also supported the new plan. Morocco would not accept the agreement or use it as a basis for negotiations.
Protests still take place and Morocco expressed some support for limited autonomy in 2006. It still has rejected any referendum on independence and no plan has been made public.
Polisario has threatened to resume fighting due to the Moroccan refusal to hold the referendum. Morocco made a proposal in 2007 to have a self-governing entity, organized through the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs, should govern the area with some autonomy. The proposal was presented to the U.N. but has not moved forward. The U.N. has asked the sides to enter into direct negotiations.
The territory’s legal status is unresolved and it is contested between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The U.N. considers it a non-self-governing territory. The parts of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco are divided into provinces and treated as important parts of the kingdom.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is the exiled government and is a single-party parliamentary and presidential system. Its constitution states that it will become a multi-party system after independence. The SADR is based in Algerian refugee camps.
Tens of thousands of Moroccan civilians have been displaced by the Algerian government. There have also been war casualties and repression. During the active war years, both sides accused each other of attacking civilians. Despite Moroccan claims, no major governments have included the Polisario Front on any lists of terrorist organizations.
The three Moroccan regions of Western Sahara are Guelmim-Es Semara, Laayoune-Boujdour-Sakia El Hamra, and Oued Ed-Dahab-Lagouira. Morocco controls the territory to the border wall’s west and the Polisario Front to the east. The Polisario areas are divided into seven military regions each with a top commander reporting to the Polisario President.
Polisario congresses and sessions are held in the Free Zone for political and symbolic importance.
There is no international prefix for communications in Western Sahara due to its disputed status.
Located in Northern Africa, the Western Sahara borders the North Atlantic Ocean between Mauritania and Morocco. Algeria borders it to the northeast. While there are rich phosphate deposits in Bou Craa, the land is some of the world’s most arid and inhospitable.
There are few natural resources outside of the phosphate deposits and fishing waters. Off-shore oil has been speculated but not confirmed and it is not known if they could be exploited. The applicability of agreements for exploitation with companies and the two claimed governments are unknown and subject to different legal opinions.
The economy centers on fishing, herding, and phosphate mining. Food is mostly imported and the Moroccan government controls all trade. Morocco has encouraged its people to relocate to the area with subsidies and price controls.
Sahrawis are Western Sahara’s indigenous population. They are of mixed Arab-Berber heritage and a Hassaniya-speaking. They are traditionally nomadic Bedouins.
The Sahrawis are a nomadic or Bedouin tribe that speaks the Hassaniya Arabic dialect. This is also spoken in a large part of Mauritania. They claim to descend from the Beni Hassan, a Yemeni tribe that allegedly migrated to the area in the 11th century.
While they are nearly physically identical to the Moors in Mauritania, their tribal affiliations and exposure to Spanish colonials set them apart. Other areas were under French control.
The Sahrawis are mostly Sunni Muslims. Pre-Islamic Berber and African practices influence their religious customs. Urban practices are very different. Unlike those in urban areas, Sahrawi Islam does not typically use mosques.
The original tribal society changed in 1975 when many were forced into refugee camps in Algeria, breaking up families.