A Brief History of Western Sahara

Published on 24th January 2006

Located in northern Africa on the Atlantic Ocean, Western Sahara is surrounded by Algeria to the east, Morocco to the north, and Mauritania to the south. The territory is divided into four districts: Laayoune, Essemara, Boujdour, and Oued Essemara. Part of the Sahara, it is extremely arid and is almost entirely covered with stones, gravel, or sand. The main towns are Laayoune (formerly El Aaiún), the capital; Dakhla (formerly Villa Cisneros); Boujdour; and Essemara. The population is predominantly made up of Arabs and Berbers.

The Sahara divides the continent into North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The southern border of the Sahara is marked by a band of semiarid savanna called the Sahel; south of the Sahel lies the lusher Sudan.

Little is known about Western Sahara before the 4th century B.C., when trade with Europe began. During the Middle Ages it was occupied first by Berbers and then by the Arabic-speaking Muslim Bedouins. In the 19th century the Spanish laid claim to the southern coastal region, called Rio de Oro, and later occupied the northern interior region, Saguia el Hamra, in 1934. The Spanish formally united the two regions, and it became known as Spanish Sahara in 1958. Both Morocco and Mauritania sought to control the territory, and when the Spanish departed in 1976 they divided the territory between them.

In the meantime, the indigenous Saharawis began fighting for independence. In 1976, the insurgents, called the Polisario Front, declared a government-in-exile (the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic) from their base in Algeria. Mauritania reached a peace agreement with the Polisario in 1979, but Morocco then seized the land given up by Mauritania and now exerts administrative control over the entire region. The Polisario Front fought Morocco to a stalemate and agreed in Sept. 1991 to a cease-fire, which was contingent on a referendum regarding independence. For more than a decade, however, the UN has failed to hold the referendum; disputes over voter eligibility have been the major stumbling block, as well as Morocco\'s opposition to the referendum.

In Aug. 2001, former secretary of state James A. Baker, special UN envoy to the Western Sahara, proposed that instead of a referendum on independence, Western Sahara consider becoming an autonomous region of Morocco. The Polisario rejected the new proposal, which it saw as a reversal of the UN\'s decade long promise to hold a referendum on self-determination. In 2002, King Mohammed VI of Morocco reasserted that he will not “renounce an inch of” the Western Sahara.

In August 2003, a UN Security Council resolution adopted a new peace plan that would turn Western Sahara into a semiautonomous region of Morocco for five years, after which a referendum would be held to determine independence, autonomy, or integration into Morocco. The Polisario agreed to the plan; Morocco refused to consider it. In June 2004, a frustrated James Baker resigned after seven years as UN envoy. His successor has vowed to achieve a resolution. The UN has spent more than $600 million on peacekeeping efforts in Western Sahara over the last 13 years.

In Aug. 2005, the Polisario freed the last Moroccan prisoners it had been holding. The 404 men had been imprisoned for almost 20 years and were the world\'s longest-held prisoners of war.


Area: 102,703 sq mi (266,000 sq km)

Inhabitants: 900,000 (2005 estimate)

Original inhabitants: 270,000

Density: 3 per km²

Not occupied: Approx. 40,000 km²

Border: 2,046 km (Mauritania 1,561 km, Algeria 42 km, Morocco 443 km) 

Coastline: 1,110 km

Highest point: 463 m

Largest city (2003 est.): El Aaiun 198,200

Monetary unit: Tala

Languages: Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic

Ethnicity/race: Saharawi, Arab, Berbers

Religion: Islam

GDP/PPP: n.a.  

Arable land: 0.02%.

Agriculture: fruits and vegetables (grown in the few oases); camels, sheep, goats (kept by nomads), animal husbandry and subsistence farming 50%

Labor force: 12,000

Industries: phosphate mining, handicrafts

Natural resources: phosphates, iron ore

Exports: Phosphates and dried fish

Imports: fuel and foodstuffs  

Seaport: Dakhla and Laayoune 

Major trading partners: Morocco claims and administers Western Sahara, so trade partners are included in overall Moroccan accounts.

Ports and harbors: Ad Dakhla, Cabo Bojador, Laayoune (El Aaiun)





en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Western_Sahara - 89k


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