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Western Sahara ( Arabic: الصحراء الغربية; transliterated: ’al-Sahrā° ’al-Ğarbīaĥ) 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), which is home to a majority of the population of the territory.
الصحراء الغربية
’al-Sahrā° ’al-Ğarbīaĥ
Western Sahara
Official language Arabic
Largest city (العيون) - Arabic transliteration El Aaiún - Spanish transliteration Laâyoune - French transliteration
- Total
- % water

266,000 km²
- Total
- Density

267,405 (July 2004 est.)
Status is disputed
Spain abandoned the territory on 14 November 1975.
Mostly administrated by Morocco as its Southern Provinces, disputed with the Polisario Front which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on February 27, 1976.
Currency Moroccan Dirham (MAD)
Time zone UTC 0
Calling Code + 212 (same code as Morocco)
ISO 3166-1 code EH
Western Sahara is on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories meaning it has not been decolonized.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 48 nations (not including 22 nations that have cancelled their earlier recognitions and 12 nations that have frozen their relations), and a full member of the African Union. Moroccan sovereignty over the territory is explicitly recognized by the Arab League [1], [2] and by 25 states.

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History - Contents

This article is part of the series:
The Western Sahara conflict

Western Sahara

  • Spanish Sahara
  • Green March
  • Madrid Accords
  • ICJ Advisory Opinion
  • Greater Morocco
  • Settlement Plan
  • Houston Agreement
  • Baker plan
  • Western Sahara Authority
  • Human rights in Western Sahara

  • Sahrawi Republic
  • Politics of the Sahrawi Republic
  • Free Zone

  • Southern Provinces
  • Politics of Morocco
  • Moroccan Wall
  • Independence Intifada

  • Western Sahara portal
The history of Western Sahara begins with the arrival of the camel which facilitated trade and exchanges. Earlier, there were some Phoenecian 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 developed 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, in the eighth century.

Spanish province
During the first two decades of the 20th century, Spain created the province 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. This had been demanded by the Polisario Front, an indigenous Sahrawi organization fighting the Spanish since 1973. However, both Morocco and Mauritania also showed interest in the territory. 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
In December 1975, the Franco government abandoned Western Sahara, repatriating even the Spanish corpses from its cemeteries. Morocco then virtually 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.

The referendum stalls
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).

The Baker Plan
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. [3] 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.

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. 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, 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 for independence broke out in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara in May 2005, and were met by police. Several international human rights organizations expressed concern at what they termed human rights abuse by Moroccan security forces, and a number of Sahrawi activists have been jailed. The Sahrawi side label these demonstrations the Independence Intifada, whereas the Moroccan side term them simply "disturbances" and insist that they are of limited importance. The demonstrations are still going on in December 2005.

Politics - Contents

Police checkpoint at suburbs of Laayoune
Police checkpoint at suburbs of Laayoune
The legal status of the territory and the question of its sovereignty is unresolved; the territory is contested by Morocco and Polisario Front. It is considered a non self-governed territory by the United Nations.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 in Algeria, and the part of Western Sahara east of the Moroccan Wall, which is more or less unpopulated.

Human rights
Map of the Moroccan Wall and territory outside the wall (yellow)
Map of the Moroccan Wall and territory outside the wall (yellow)
The Western Sahara conflict has resulted in severe human rights abuses, most notably the displacement of around 200,000 Sahrawi civilians from the country. Both Morocco and the Polisario accuse each other of violating the human rights of the populations under their control.Morocco has been heavily criticised by international human rights organizations for its actions in Western Sahara, while criticism of the Polisario has been less frequent. [4] During the war, both sides accused each other of targeting civilians. Morocco has been internationally condemned for employing napalm against refugee columns in 1975 [5] and for collective punishment against Sahrawi civilians (see 'The "Disappeared"'). The Moroccan claims of Polisario terrorism has generally received little support abroad, with the USA refusing to include the group on its list of terrorist organizations. Polisario in turn maintained that they are ideologically opposed to terrorism and will only wage a "clean war of national liberation". For human rights abuse in Tindouf camps, see Human rights in Western Sahara

Subdivisions - Contents

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. For more information on the geographic/administrative sub-divisions of Western Sahara, see the Southern Provinces article.The remaining area is administered by the SADR, 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.

Geography - Contents

NASA photo of El Aaiún
NASA photo of El Aaiún
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.

Economy - Contents

Aside from its rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters, Western Sahara has few natural resources and lacks sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities. There are speculations about off-shore oil and natural gas findings, 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 large oil findings 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 has made deals with oil and gas 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 the 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, leaving Kerr-McGee as the sole remaining company in the area.

Demographics - Contents

The indigenous population of Western Sahara is known as Sahrawis, corresponding to the ahl al-sahel (people of the coast). These are Hassaniya-speaking tribes of mixed Arab- Berber heritage, closely related to the Moorish population of Mauritania. 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 Rabat-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 in fact ethnic Sahrawis from southern Morocco, some are also Moroccan. 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 settlers), 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. They do not by any account represent the total population of the Sahrawi ethnic group, but rather of the Western Sahara Sahrawis; 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. [6] 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.See the CIA World Factbook 2004

Culture - Contents

The indigenous people of Western Sahara are the Sahrawis, a nomadic or Bedouin people who speak the 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.Racially indistinguishable from the white Moors of Mauritania, the Sahwari people differ culturally from their neighbors partly due to their tribal identity and partly as a consequence of their long exposure to Spanish colonial domination.Like their Mauritanian Moorish neighbors, 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 nomadic 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. 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 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.
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