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total: 266,000 sq km
land: 266,000 sq km
water: 0 sq km
Total: 2,049 km
border countries (3):
Algeria 41 km,
Mauritania 1,564 km,
Morocco 444 km
Coastline: 1,110 km
Total: 3159 km
hot, dry desert;
rain is rare;
cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew
mostly low, flat desert with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains in south and northeast
mean elevation: 256 m
elevation extremes: lowest point: Sebjet Tah -55 m
highest point: unnamed elevation 805 m
phosphates, iron ore
agricultural land: 18.8%
arable land 0%; permanent crops 0%; permanent pasture 18.8%
other: 78.5% (2011 est.)
0 sq km (2012)
Population – distribution:
most of the population lives in the three-quarters of the area west of the berm (Moroccan-occupied) that divides the territory; about 40% of that populace resides in Laayoune
hot, dry, dust/sand-laden sirocco wind can occur during winter and spring;
widespread harmattan haze exists 60% of the time, often severely restricting visibility
People and Society
Western Sahara is a non-self governing territory; approximately 75% is under Moroccan control. It was inhabited almost entirely by Sahrawi pastoral nomads until the mid-20th century. Their traditional vast migratory ranges, based on following unpredictable rainfall, did not coincide with colonial and later international borders. Since the 1930s, most Sahrawis have been compelled to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and to live in urban settings as a result of fighting, the presence of minefields, job opportunities in the phosphate industry, prolonged drought, the closure of Western Sahara’s border with Mauritania from 1979-2002, and the construction of the defensive berm separating Moroccan- and Polisario-controlled (Sahrawi liberalization movement) areas. Morocco supported rapid urbanization to facilitate surveillance and security.
Today more than 80% of Western Sahara’s population lives in urban areas; more than 40% live in the administrative center Laayoune. Moroccan immigration has altered the composition and dramatically increased the size of Western Sahara’s population. Morocco maintains a large military presence in Western Sahara and has encouraged its citizens to settle there, offering bonuses, pay raises, and food subsidies to civil servants and a tax exemption, in order to integrate Western Sahara into the Moroccan Kingdom and, Sahrawis contend, to marginalize the native population.
Western Saharan Sahrawis have been migrating to Europe, principally to former colonial ruler Spain, since the 1950s. Many who moved to refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, also have migrated to Spain and Italy, usually alternating between living in cities abroad with periods back at the camps. The Polisario claims that the population of the Tindouf camps is about 155,000, but this figure may include thousands of Arabs and Tuaregs from neighboring countries. Because international organizations have been unable to conduct an independent census in Tindouf, the UNHCR bases its aid on a figure of 90,000 refugees. Western Saharan coastal towns emerged as key migration transit points (for reaching Spain’s Canary Islands) in the mid-1990s when Spain’s and Italy’s tightening of visa restrictions and EU pressure on Morocco and other North African countries to control illegal migration pushed sub-Saharan African migrants to shift their routes to the south.
603,253(July 2017 est.)
Standard Arabic, Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Berber, Spanish, French
Ethnicity, Language, and Religion
The indigenous population of Western Sahara is usually known in Western media as Sahrawis, but they are also referred to in Morocco as “Southerners” or “Southern Berbers”. They are Hassaniya-speaking or Berber-speaking tribes of Berber origin (there is a 97% similarity even in Y-DNA). Many of them have mixed Berber-Arab heritage, effectively continuations of the tribal groupings of Hassaniya-speaking and Zenaga-Berber speaking Moorish tribes extending south into Mauritania and north into Morocco as well as east into Algeria. The Sahrawis are traditionally nomadic Bedouins with a lifestyle very similar to that of the Tuareg Berbers from whom Sahrawis most likely have descended, and they can be found in all surrounding countries. War and conflict have led to major population displacement.
Hassaniya, an Arabic dialect, is the native language spoken in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps in Tindouf in Algeria. There is also a significant presence of Berber language speakers in the northern parts of the territory of Western Sahara. Hassaniya, primarily spoken at home, is dominated by the Moroccan dialect spoken in the streets, workplace, and schools. This is because the great majority of the population consists of Moroccans who settled in Western Sahara. French is also commonly used by the Moroccan administration. In the urban areas, Moroccan Arabic is now spoken, as Morocco controls and administers most of the territory of Western Sahara and all of its cities, and considers it an inseparable part of the country. The Moroccan constitution stipulates two official languages for the Kingdom of Morocco, including Western Sahara: Berber (Tamazight) and Arabic. Spanish is common among Sahrawi people and especially among the Sahrawi diaspora, with the Sahrawi Press Service, official news service of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, being available in Spanish since 2001 and the Sahara Film Festival, Western Sahara’s only film festival, showing mainly Spanish-language films.
Reliable data on the exact numbers of practitioners of major religions is not available. However, most sources estimate that the population is 60% Muslim, 30% Christian, and 10% practitioners of traditional indigenous religions. Muslims were traditionally concentrated in the northern part of the country, and Christians in the south. However, an ongoing civil war has prompted relocation by large masses of the population. Reportedly, many syncretic practices exist, with up to 20% of the populace practicing a mixture of either Muslim or Christianity with traditional indigenous religions. Certain Muslim and Christian holidays are recognized as national holidays. The Inter-Religious Council serves an important role in civil society and works to promote the peace process within the country.
Sunni Islam is the major religion in Western Sahara. Sunni Muslims constitute about 99.9% of the population. Sunni Islam is based on the belief that the Prophet Muhammad died without appointing a successor to lead the Muslim community (ummah). According to Sunni Muslims, after Muhammad’s death, the confusion that ensued from not having a person to head the community led to the election of Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s close friend and father-in-law, as the first Caliph. This contrasts with the Shi’a Muslim belief that Muhammad himself appointed his first successor to be Ali ibn Abi Talib as the first Caliph and the first Muslim imam. The sectarian split that occurred in Islam between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims is based upon this early question of leadership. Prior to 1975, there were over 20,000 Roman Catholics in Western Sahara but as of 2007, there were only around 100.
Western Sahara doesn’t have oriented educational system. As a result of most Saharawis who pursued the path of education often left for 12 years to train for their medical careers, thousands of miles away from their loved ones. Today, most of the doctors currently serving in the camps are those who had the chance to pursue their training in Cuba. Others have had the opportunity to study in Algeria itself, due to the strong cultural and political bonds between Algeria and the Saharawi government. Algeria has offered the chance for Saharawi youth to pursue the education in its different cities. Those who choose to study in Algeria leave the camp for the whole year, apart from visits to their families in the summer vacations.
Within the Algerian education system, Saharawis are not only introduced to classic Arabic and French, but also to different aspects of the Algerian culture, allowing Saharawis born in Algeria to better understand the history of their host country and its people. Such exposure has not only helped educate the Saharawi youth but also strengthen relations between the two nations.
Other countries to have offered educational opportunities for Sahrawi refugees include Spain, where the Sahrawi cause enjoys significant support and solidarity from the Spanish public. Hundreds of Spanish NGOs offer summer programmes for Saharawi children every year, giving them a chance to spend the summer away from hardships of occupied life in desert refugee camps. Most of these children go back to the camps at the end of the summer, but those who remain are offered the chance to stay with Spanish host families to pursue their education and learn a new language. Many stay for more than a decade, growing up into adulthood and adopting both the Saharawi and Spanish cultures. The Spanish educational system enjoys a significant influence within the camps themselves, with most of the Saharawi population in the camps bilingual speakers, making Spanish one of the principal languages spoken in the camps.
A number of Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Venezuela, have also opened their doors to Saharawi refugees to study at some of their top universities. In the USA and Norway, many Saharawis undertake courses such as journalism, international affairs and diplomacy, seen as extremely important for the Saharawi struggle. Indeed, many combine their studies with speaking engagements at the United Nations and other major international organizations, acting as a voice for their nation.
Education has offered young Sahrawi the opportunity to equip themselves with precious tools for advancing the national cause, as well as build cultural and political bridges of solidarity between the Saharaoui people and other peoples, cultures, and nations around the globe. For a generation of young Saharawis, education abroad has offered the chance to build a better future not only for themselves but also for their Saharawi community in the camps and elsewhere. Many have turned their thousands of days in exile into a path towards genuine hopes and dreams for themselves and their homeland.
Western Sahara has a small market-based economy whose main industries are fishing, phosphate mining, tourism, and pastoral nomadism. The territory’s arid desert climate makes sedentary agriculture difficult, and much of its food is imported. The Moroccan Government administers Western Sahara’s economy and is a key source of employment, infrastructure development, and social spending in the territory. The majority of the territory of Western Sahara – the Southern Provinces – is currently administered by the Kingdom of Morocco. As such, the majority of the economic activity of Western Sahara happens in the framework of the economy of Morocco.
Western Sahara’s unresolved legal status makes the exploitation of its natural resources a contentious issue between Morocco and the Polisario. Morocco and the EU in December 2013 finalized a four-year agreement allowing European vessels to fish off the coast of Morocco, including disputed waters off the coast of Western Sahara. As of April 2018, Moroccan and EU authorities were negotiating an amendment to renew the agreement. In the Moroccan-administered territory, fishing and phosphate mining are the principal sources of income for the population. The territory lacks sufficient rainfall for sustainable agricultural production; hence, most of the food for the urban population must be imported. Trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government.
Oil has never been found in Western Sahara in commercially significant quantities, but Morocco and the Polisario have quarreled over rights to authorize and benefit from oil exploration in the territory. Western Sahara’s main long-term economic challenge is the development of a more diverse set of industries capable of providing greater employment and income to the territory. However, following King MOHAMMED VI’s November 2015 visit to Western Sahara, the Government of Morocco announced a series of investments aimed at spurring economic activity in the region, while the General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises announced a $609 million investment initiative in the region in March 2015.
GDP (purchasing power parity):
$906.5 million (2007 est.)
GDP (official exchange rate):
GDP – real growth rate:
GDP – per capita (PPP):
$2,500 (2007 est.)
Gross national saving:
GDP – composition, by sector of origin:
services: 40% (2007 est.)
Agriculture – products:
fruits and vegetables (grown in the few oases); camels, sheep, goats (kept by nomads); fish
phosphate mining, handicrafts
Population below poverty line:
Aside from its rich fishing waters and phosphate reserves Western Sahara has few natural resources and lacks sufficient rainfall and freshwater resources for most agricultural activities. Western Sahara’s much-touted phosphate reserves are relatively unimportant, representing less than two percent of proven phosphate reserves in Morocco. There is speculation that there may be off-shore oil and natural gas fields, but the debate persists as to whether these resources can be profitably exploited, and if this would be legally permitted due to the Non-Self-Governing status of Western Sahara.
Western Sahara’s economy is based almost entirely on fishing and phosphate mining which employs two-thirds of its workforce. Some lesser extent agriculture and tourism also contribute to the territory’s economy. Most food for the urban population comes from Morocco. All trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government (as its de facto southern province). 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.
Electricity – production:
0 kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – consumption:
0 kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – exports:
0 kWh (2016 est.)
Electricity – imports:
0 kWh (2016 est.)
Electricity – installed generating capacity:
58,000 kW (2015 est.)
Electricity – from fossil fuels:
100% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Electricity – from nuclear fuels:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Electricity – from hydroelectric plants:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Electricity – from other renewable sources:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
general assessment: sparse and limited system
international: country code – 212; tied into Morocco’s system by microwave radio relay, tropospheric scatter, and satellite; satellite earth stations – 2 Intelsat (Atlantic Ocean) linked to Rabat, Morocco (2015)
Morocco’s state-owned broadcaster, Radio-Television Marocaine (RTM), operates a radio service from Laayoune and relays TV service; a Polisario-backed radio station also broadcasts (2008)
Internet country code:
Industry and Mining
The issue of sovereignty for Western Sahara, which was claimed by the Moroccan Government, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), remained unresolved in 2014. About 85% of the Western Saharan territory was administered by the Government of Morocco and the remaining 15% was under the administration of the Polisario. The territory is a desert area bordering the Atlantic Ocean between Mauritania and Morocco. Western Sahara’s economy continued to be dependent on fishing, pastoral nomadism, and phosphate rock mining.
Phosphate de Boucraa S.A. (Phosboucraa), which was a fully owned subsidiary of OCP, was responsible for mining, beneficiation, transportation, and marketing of phosphate rock at the Bou Craa Mine. The mine had the world’s longest conveyor belt, employed 2,200 people (most of them are locals), and held 800 Mt of phosphate rock ore, which was 1.6% of Morocco’s phosphate rock reserves. Phosphate rock mined in Western Sahara was moved by the conveyor belt for a distance of more than 100 km to the Port of El Aaiun. The phosphate ore was offloaded to cargo vessels for transport to various countries where the phosphate was used in fertilizer production. According to Western Sahara Resource Watch, 2.1 Mt of phosphate rock valued at $230 million was exported in 2014 compared with 2.2 Mt valued at $330 million in 2013. Phosphate rock exports went to Canada (37%), Lithuania (19%), New Zealand (12%), the United States (9%), Mexico (8%), Colombia (5%), Australia (4%), and others (4%).
Kosmos Energy was exploring for crude oil and natural gas at the Cap Boujour Block, which is located in the Aaiun Basin offshore Western Sahara. The block was the last undrilled Cretaceous basin alongside the North West Africa Atlantic Margin. In September, the Polisario issued a statement opposing the exploration and development of offshore hydrocarbon resources in the territorial waters of Western Sahara.
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic shares the top tourist attractions in Western Sahara, a region characterized by a rocky landscape, expansive sand dunes, and an Atlantic coastline. Western Sahara is not suitable for swimming but offers spectacular coastal views. The region is most popular for its tropical deserts, exotic culture, and interesting history. Below are some of its most notable tourist spots.
The camel grass landscape on the north dominates the Saharan sand dunes. Locals call it the “hamada”. It stretches for 200 km between Tarfaya and Laayoune. What it lacks in the sand, it makes up for in rocks, valleys, cliffs, and plant life. More than 70 percent of the Sahara is a hamada and Western Sahara’s share forms part of it. You may find camels grazing on areas covered with camel grass, a variety that could grow several meters tall.
Laayoune is the capital of Western Sahara. Pale shades of pink and orange cover the entire city but wall paintings add color to it. Most wall paintings are nothing more than colorful art decorating the city but some can be interesting in terms of history. The Green March near Place Mechouar is a must-see. The street art depicts the mass demonstration of 1975 when Morocco was forcing Spain to let go of their colony. Several other wall paintings depict historical events prior to the Green March. They are among the top tourist attractions in Western Sahara.
Place of Attraction
This stylish eatery celebrates the region’s recent Spanish heritage with hot and cold tapas – the shrimp croquettes and the calamari are both very good – while local octopus and grilled Merlan (whiting) are popular menu items. The erstwhile Lola keeps regular business visitors from the Canary Islands very happy, dispensing both good humor and complimentary aperitivo shots.
NATURAL LANDMARKS OF WESTERN SAHARA
Cabo Blanco seal colony – Cabo Blanco peninsula. The only colony of monk seals in the world. Here in caves lives a group of extremely rare Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus), there could be living some 200 seals; Devil’s Mountain – southern part. Giant natural monolith – rounded, the very unusual mountain with a smooth surface, rising hundreds of meters above the desert. Prehistoric rock art (4 000 – 1 000 BC), sacred and even mystical place to Sahrawi people; And Oum Dbaa dry cascade – northern part. Seasonal waterfall with interesting tufa formation. Formed by spring water which contains lime and salt.
MAN MADE LANDMARKS OF WESTERN SAHARA
Bou Dheir – very diverse prehistoric paintings in numerous rock shelters, often in a very good state of preservation. Many drawings are very large, paintings show wild animals, humans. On the plateau above the shelters is found also large crescent-shaped structure – stone setting; Cueva del Diablo – prehistoric shelter – cave with some of the most impressive engraved images in this part of the world; Erqueiz rock art – northern part. The site with a rich collection of prehistoric rock art – paintings of wild animals and cattle, also humans. Endangered by looting. Here are found also megalithic steles – upright stones; Irghayra rock art – site with a rich collection of prehistoric rock art – paintings of wild animals and cattle, also humans; Lejuad, Rekeiz Lemgasem, and Sluguilla Lawash.
Little is known of the prehistory of Western Sahara, although Neolithic (New Stone Age) rock engravings in Saguia el-Hamra and in isolated locations in the south suggest that it was occupied by a succession of hunting and pastoral groups, with some agriculturists in favored locales, prior to a gradual process of desertification that began about 2500 BCE. The earliest known inhabitants of Western Sahara were the Gaetuli. Depending on the century, Roman-era sources describe the area as inhabited by Gaetulian Autololes or the Gaetulian Daradae tribes. Berber heritage is still evident from regional and place-name toponymy, as well as from tribal names. Other early inhabitants of Western Sahara may be the Bafour and later the Serer. The Bafour were later replaced or absorbed by Berber-speaking populations which eventually merged in turn with the migrating Beni Ḥassān Arab tribes.
What is now Western Sahara was a dry savanna area during classical antiquity, where independent tribes like the Pharusii and the Perorsi led a semi-nomadic life facing a growing desertification. Romans made explorations toward this area and probably reached, with Suetonius Paulinus, the area of Adrar. There is evidence (e.g., coins, fibulas) of Roman commerce in Akjoujt and Tamkartkart near Tichit. The western Sahara population (in those first centuries of the Roman Empire) consisted of nomads (mainly of the Sanhaja tribal confederation) in the plains and sedentary populations in river valleys, in oases, and in towns like Awdaghust Tichitt, Oualata, Taghaza, Timbuktu, Awlil, Azuki, and Tamdult. Some Berber tribes moved to Mauritania in the third and fourth century.
The desertification of the Sahara during the “transitional arid phase” ca. 300 BC – 300 AD” made contact with some parts with the outside world very difficult before the introduction of the camel into these areas, from the third century of the Christian era on. The camel was primarily used as a beast of burden; people walked beside them. Also, camel meat, milk, and skin were important. By the 4th century BCE, there was trade between Western Sahara and Europe across the Mediterranean; the Phoenicians sailed along the west coast of Africa in this period. The Romans also had some contact with the Saharan peoples. By medieval times this part of the Sahara was occupied by Ṣanhajāh Amazigh (Berber) peoples who were later dominated by Arabic-speaking Muslim Bedouins from about 1000 CE.
The Arrival of Islam
Islam arrived in the 8th century AD between the Berber population who inhabited the western part of the Sahara. The Islamic faith quickly expanded, brought by Arab immigrants, who initially only blended superficially with the population, mostly confining themselves to the cities of present-day Morocco and Spain. The Berbers increasingly used the traditional trade routes of the Sahara. Caravans transported salt, gold, and slaves between North Africa and West Africa, and the control of trade routes became a major ingredient in the constant power struggle between various tribes. On more than one occasion, the Berber tribes of Western Sahara would unite behind religious leaders to sweep the ruling leaders from power, sometimes founding dynasties of their own.
In the 11th century, the Maqil Arabs (fewer than 200 individuals) settled in Morocco (mainly in the Draa River valley, between the Moulouya River, Tafilalt and Taourirt). Towards the end of the Almohad Caliphate, the Beni Hassan, a sub-tribe of the Maqil, were called by the local ruler of the Sous to quell a rebellion; they settled in the Sous Ksours and controlled such cities as Taroudant. During Marinid dynasty rule, the Beni Hassan rebelled but were defeated by the Sultan and escaped beyond the Saguia el-Hamra dry river. The Beni Hassan then were at constant war with the Lamtuna nomadic Berbers of the Sahara. Over roughly five centuries, through a complex process of acculturation and mixing seen elsewhere in the Maghreb and North Africa, some of the indigenous Berber tribes mixed with the Maqil Arab tribes and formed a culture unique to Morocco and Mauritania.
An important role was played by the zawiyas. As centers of Islamic education under the supervision of an Islamic scholar, the ‘Saih’, they became centers of new communities. In many tribal groups, we see a split when a part of their members distanced themselves from the traditional leading group and formed a zawiya, following the Islamic example. These newly formed communities separated themselves from traditional, military society. Until then matrilinear ancestry had been important. They stressed the importance of patrilinear ancestry in which they tried to show their descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad (the Shurfa), his tribe (the Quraysh) or his companions (Ansar). They put spiritual ideals higher than the ideals of battle. They preferred religious influence over military pressure, equal membership over dependency. They were in favor of giving alms and lending cattle to people in need and were vehemently opposed to plundering and extortion. They declared cattle-raids and random taxing to be unlawful. Although they were opposed to non-religious warfare, they were strong enough to defend themselves against military attacks. These zawiya tribes became the tribes of the teachers, specialists of religion, law, and education.
Contact With European
After the fall of the Almoravid empire in 1147, the new empires (Almohads, Merinids, and Wattasids) retained sovereignty over the western part of the Sahara but the effectiveness of it depended largely on the sultan that ruled. It was only with the coming to power of the Saadi Dynasty that the sovereignty of Morocco over the western part of the Sahara became complete again: Also, the Spanish established Villa Cisneros in 1502 to extend their empire. The Portuguese colonizers were expelled from Cape Bojador and from Cap Blanc and the borders of Morocco were moved up to the Senegal River in the south-west and to the Niger River in the south-east (see: Battle of Tondibi in 1591). The following (and current) Moroccan dynasty, the Alaouite Dynasty which came to power in 1659, appears to have had continued exercise of sovereignty over the modern Western Sahara, although the slow collapse of central authority through the 19th century, which ended in European colonial rule, no doubt attenuated that.
In 1346 the Portuguese discovered a bay that they mistakenly identified with a more southerly Río de Oro, probably the Sénégal River. In the time of the Almoravid’s professional warriors had fought as mujahideen in their holy war. Just like the people who had united in Zawya’s, the mujahideen began to form tribes based on their specific occupations. This development was accelerated by the arrival of Maqil Arab tribes. In the 13th and 14th century, these tribes migrated westwards along the Sahara’s northern border to settle in the Fezzan (Libya), Ifriqiya (Tunisia), Tlemcen (Algeria), Jebel Saghro (Morocco), and Saguia el-Hamra (Western Sahara). When the Maqil Arabs arrived in the western part of the Sahara the mujahidin were most prone to Arabization. While the zawiya tribes retained many of their Berber characteristics, the warrior tribes tried to “Arabize” as much as possible. They constructed genealogies of the ancestors of their tribes, connecting them to members of the Maqil and Arabizing their ethnonyms. Thus the Nyarzig, for instance, became the Ouled Rizg. However, this right to call oneself “Arab” was only restricted to some tribes. These tribes, the Banu Hassan or simply Hassan, were to function as a warrior class in the next centuries.
The Arabized Berber tribes controlled key oasis settlements of the Sahara and played an important role in the trans-Saharan slave trade. They already used to impose heavy taxation on any traffic through their lands, while also furnishing protection, supplies, and camels. When trans-Saharan trade intensified, they developed departure and arrival centers with slave depots and intermediary secure caravan stops. In these centers, they oversaw the traffic from sub-Saharan regions to Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Timbuktu (Mali) was a central crossroad to all four routes. Ouadane, Idjil (near Atar), Azougui, Araouane, Taoudenni, and later Tindouf were important stopping-places. At the same time, the number of slaves kept in Western Sahara itself increased drastically.
The coastal region was little explored by Europeans until Scottish and Spanish merchants arrived in the mid-19th century, although in 1476 a short-lived trading post, Santa Cruz de Mar Pequeña, was established by Diego García de Herrera, a Spaniard. While initial Spanish interest in the Sahara was focused on using it as a port for the slave trade, by the 1700s Spain had transitioned economic activity on the Saharan coast towards commercial fishing. In the second half of the 19th century, several European powers tried to get a foothold in Africa. France occupied Tunisia and Great Britain Ottoman Egypt. Italy took possession of parts of Eritrea, while Germany declared Togo, Cameroon and South West Africa to be under its protection. At the invitation of Germany 14 countries attended the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885 to come to an agreement amongst them about the division of the territories.
In 1884 Emilio Bonelli, of the Sociedad Española de Africanistas y Colonistas (“Spanish Society of Africanists and Colonists”), went to Río de Oro bay and signed treaties with the coastal peoples. Subsequently, the Spanish government claimed a protectorate over the coastal zone. Further Spanish penetration was hindered by French claims to Mauritania and by partisans of Sheikh Māʾ al-ʿAynayn, who between 1898 and 1902 constructed the town of Semara at an inland oasis. In 1912, Morocco itself became a protectorate of Spain and France. Cape Juby (Ṭarfāyah) was occupied for Spain by Col. Francisco Bens in 1916, Güera was occupied in 1920, and Semara and the rest of the interior were occupied in 1934. After 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, this area was administered by Spanish Morocco. As a consequence, Ahmed Belbachir Haskouri, the Chief of Cabinet, General Secretary of the Government of Spanish Morocco, cooperated with the Spanish to select governors in that area.
The Saharan lords who were already in prominent positions, such as the members of Maa El Ainain family, provided a recommended list of candidates for new governors. Together with the Spanish High Commissioner, Belbachir selected from this list. During the annual celebration of Muhammad’s birthday, these lords paid their respects to the caliph to show loyalty to the Moroccan monarchy. When Morocco gained its independence in the 1950s, the country also restated its claims over still Spanish Western Sahara. In 1958, the Moroccan King Mohammed V in an address at El Ghizlan called for a renewal of the “everlasting allegiance” that some Saharan tribes had pledged to Moulay Hassan I and promised that Morocco would mobilize itself to see Western Sahara brought under Moroccan rule.
Struggle for Independence
Raids and rebellions by the Sahrawi population kept the Spanish forces out of much of the territory for a long time. Ma al-Aynayn started an uprising against the French in the 1910s, at a time when France had expanded its influence and control in North-West Africa. French forces finally beat him when he tried to conquer Marrakesh, but his sons and followers figured prominently in several rebellions which followed. Not until the second destruction of Smara in 1934, by joint Spanish and French forces, did the territory finally become subdued. Another uprising in 1956–1958, initiated by the Moroccan Army of Liberation, led to heavy fighting, but eventually, the Spanish forces regained control – again with French aid. However, unrest simmered, and in 1967 the Harakat Tahrir arose to challenge Spanish rule peacefully. After the events of the Zemla Intifada in 1970, when Spanish police destroyed the organization and “disappeared” its founder, Muhammad Bassiri, anti-Spanish feeling or Sahrawi nationalism again took a militant turn.
As time went by, Spanish colonial rule began to unravel with the general wave of decolonization after World War II; former North African and sub-Saharan African possessions and protectorates gained independence from European powers. Spanish decolonization proceeded more slowly, but internal political and social pressures for it in mainland Spain built up towards the end of Francisco Franco’s rule. There was a global trend towards complete decolonization. Spain began rapidly to divest itself of most of its remaining colonial possessions. By 1974–75 the government issued promises of a referendum on independence in Western Sahara.
At the same time, Morocco and Mauritania, which had historical and competing claims of sovereignty over the territory, argued that it had been artificially separated from their territories by the European colonial powers. Algeria, which also bordered the territory, viewed their demands with suspicion, as Morocco also claimed the Algerian provinces of Tindouf and Béchar. After arguing for a process of decolonization to be guided by the United Nations, the Algerian government under Houari Boumédiènne in 1975 committed to assisting the Polisario Front, which opposed both Moroccan and Mauritanian claims and demanded full independence of Western Sahara.
The Madrid Accords
The UN attempted to settle these disputes through a visiting mission in late 1975, as well as a verdict from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It acknowledged that Western Sahara had historical links with Morocco and Mauritania, but not sufficient to prove the sovereignty of either State over the territory at the time of the Spanish colonization. The population of the territory thus possessed the right of self-determination. On 6 November 1975 Morocco initiated the Green March into Western Sahara; 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 the border in a peaceful march. A few days before, on 31 October, Moroccan troops invaded Western Sahara from the north.
Decades of social and economic change caused by drought, desertification, and the impact of the phosphate discoveries resulted in an increase in national consciousness and anticolonial sentiment. A guerrilla insurgency by the Spanish Sahara’s indigenous inhabitants, the nomadic Saharawis, sprang up in the early 1970s, calling itself the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front). The insurgency led Spain to declare in 1975 that it would withdraw from the area. Faced with consistent pressure from Morocco and Mauritania and itself undergoing a period of domestic uncertainty, Spain agreed to the partition of Western Sahara between the two countries despite a World Court ruling that Morocco’s and Mauritania’s legal claims to the Spanish Sahara were tenuous and did not negate the right to self-determination by the Saharawis.
On November 14, 1975, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania signed the Madrid Accords, hence setting up a timetable for the retrieval of Spanish forces and ending Spanish occupation of Western Sahara. These accords were signed by the three parties in accordance with all international standards. In these accords, Morocco was set to annex back 2/3 of the northern part of Western Sahara, whereas the lower third would be given to Mauritania. Polisario established their own Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and combined guerrilla warfare with their conventional military forces, the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). In 1976 the Polisario Front declared a government-in-exile of what it called the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (a government recognized by some 70 countries), and it continued to raid Mauritanian and Moroccan outposts in Western Sahara.
Resistance to the Annexations
The Moroccan and Mauritanian annexations were resisted by the Polisario Front, which had gained backing from Algeria. It initiated guerrilla warfare and, in 1979, Mauritania withdrew due to pressure from Polisario, including a bombardment of its capital and other economic targets. Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory. It gradually contained the guerrillas by setting up the extensive sand-berm in the desert (known as the Border Wall or Moroccan Wall) to exclude guerrilla fighters. Hostilities ceased in a 1991 cease-fire, overseen by the peacekeeping mission MINURSO, under the terms of a UN Settlement Plan. This peace proposal was accepted by both Morocco and the Polisario Front, and the two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1991. As a UN administrative and peacekeeping force arrived in Western Sahara to prepare to conduct the referendum, however, Morocco moved tens of thousands of “settlers” into the territory and insisted that they have their voting qualifications assessed.
This drawn-out procedure, which involved questions regarding the definition of who among the traditionally nomadic Saharawis would be entitled to cast a ballot, continued throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century. Meanwhile, Morocco continued to expand its physical infrastructure in Western Sahara despite widespread protests against its presence in the areas under its control. In 2007, Morocco requested U.N. action against a congress to be held by the Polisario Front in Tifariti from December 14 to December 16. Morocco claimed Tifariti was part of a buffer zone and holding the congress there violated a cease-fire between the two parties. Additionally, the Polisario Front had been reported as planning a vote on a proposal for making preparations for war; if passed, it would have been the first time in 16 years preparations for war had been part of the Polisario’s strategy.
In October 2010, Gadaym Izik camp was set up near Laayoune as a protest by displaced Sahrawi people about their living conditions. It was home to more than 12,000 people. In November 2010, Moroccan security forces entered Gadaym Izik camp in the early hours of the morning, using helicopters and water cannons to force people to leave. The Polisario Front said Moroccan security forces had killed a 26-year-old protester at the camp, a claim denied by Morocco. Protesters in Laayoune threw stones at police and set fire to tires and vehicles. Several buildings, including a TV station, were also set afire. Moroccan officials said five security personnel had been killed in the unrest.