Nation profile

Western Sahara
As-Sahra al-Gharbiyyah

General information
584.000 inhabitants (2016 projection by UN)
266.000 km2
Government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR, partially recognized)
Major cities
Al-Aaiún (capital city), Bir Lehlou, Dakhla, Smara
State administration
Kingdom of Morocco (80% of territory) and SADR (20%)
Territorial languages
Hassaniyya Arabic
Official languages
Major religion
Sunni Islam
National day
27 February (proclamation of independence), 12 October (national unity day)

Western Sahara declared its independence 27 February 1976; despite that, 80% of its territory remains under Moroccan occupation. A former Spanish colony, it is the only territory in the African mainland where the decolonitzation and self-determination process is still pending.

The roots of the Western Sahara conflict

In late 19th century, the current territory of Western Sahara came under Spanish possession. Its borders were delimited during the colonial era.

In 1973, the Polisario Front launched a guerrilla war for independence from Spain. Morocco started to exert pressure to occupy and annex the territory, which it claimed as its own on historical grounds.

The Spanish authorities, eager to leave the territory, transferred administrative authority over Western Sahara —but not their sovereignty— to both Morocco and Mauritania in the so-called Madrid Agreements, 14 November 1975.

The Polisario Front did not accept the Madrid Agreements and, 27 February 1976, proclaimed the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. In November 1975, Moroccan forces had started the occupation of Western Sahara.

The armed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front lasted until 1991, when the two belligerents signed a ceasefire that has held to date. Moroccan-occupied territory accounts for approximately 80% of Western Sahara, which includes most of the coastline and phosphate deposits —which together with fisheries is the main economic resource in the territory. The Polisario Front controls the remaining 20%, mainly desert territories along the entire border with Mauritania and Algeria. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees live in Algerian camps in Tindouf —Algerian authorities puts the figure at 165,000; UNHCR at 90,000.

After the ceasefire, the UN deployed its Sahara mission (MINURSO), which has among its objectives to monitor the ceasefire and to organize a referendum on self-determination, agreed by both parties. The referendum, initially planned for 1992 and then re-scheduled (Baker Plan) for 1998, has never been held because belligerents did not agree on who should have the right to vote. The Polisario Front says those registered in the last Spanish census of 1974 and their descendants should be eligible to vote; Morocco wants a much broader census that includes at least tens of thousands of Moroccan-born people that have settled in Western Sahara since the beginning of the Moroccan occupation, and their descendants.

Subsequent developments

The Moroccan government withdrew from the idea of a referendum allowing Western Sahara independence, and since 2006 has been pushing forward the idea of an autonomy plan, a concept that was proposed to the Polisario Front in the 2007-2008 Manhasset negotiations. The Polisario Front rejected any referendum that did not include an independence option.

Under Moroccan occupation, tens of thousands of Sahrawis have carried out several waves of protests on issues such as the lack of civil rights, repression, lack of economic opportunities and the status of the territory. The most significant ones took place in 1999-2000, 2005 and 2010-2011 (Gdeim Izik). All of them were repressed by the Moroccan forces.

(Last updated February 2017.)