Western Sahara

(redirected from Moroccan Sahara)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.
Related to Moroccan Sahara: Saharan Provinces

Western Sahara,

territory (2015 est. pop. 526,000), 102,703 sq mi (266,000 sq km), NW Africa, occupied by Morocco. It borders on the Atlantic Ocean in the west, on Morocco in the north, on Algeria in the northeast, and on Mauritania in the east and south.

Land and People

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. Rocky highlands in the east reach c.1,500 ft (460 m). The main towns are Laayoune (formerly El Aaiún), Dakhla (formerly Villa Cisneros), Boujdour, and Essemara. The population is predominantly made up of Arabs and Berbers, both of Sahrawi (Western Saharan) and Moroccan origin; during the rainy season pastoral nomads migrate into the territory. Both Hasaniya Arabic and Moroccan Arabic are spoken; most of the population is Sunni Muslim.


The traditional economy is limited to the raising of goats, camels, and sheep, and the cultivation of date palms. There is coastal fishing. Large deposits of phosphates at Boukra (near Laayoune) were first exploited by a Spanish-controlled firm in the early 1970s; Morocco has since taken primary control of the firm. Potash and iron deposits exist at Agracha. There is a growing tourist industry. The region has a limited transportation network; the main seaports are Dakhla and Laayoune. Phosphates and dried fish are exported, while fuel and foodstuffs are the main imports.


There is evidence of trade between the Western Sahara and Europe by the 4th cent. B.C. Portuguese navigators reached Cape Bojador on the northern coast of present-day Western Sahara in 1434. However, there was little European contact with the region until the 19th cent. In 1884, Spain claimed a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cap Blanc (at the present border with Mauritania). The boundaries of the protectorate were extended by Franco-Spanish agreements in 1900, 1904, and 1920. Essemara was not captured until 1934, and the Spanish had only slight contact with the interior until the 1950s. In 1957, a rebel movement ousted the Spanish, who regained control of the region with French help in Feb., 1958.

In Apr., 1958, Spain joined the previously separate districts of Saguia el Hamra (in the north) and Río de Oro (in the south) to form the province of Spanish Sahara. In the early 1970s, dissidents formed organizations seeking independence for the province. At the same time, neighboring nations (notably Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria) pressured Spain to call a referendum on the area's future in accordance with UN resolutions. Continuing guerrilla warfare in the 1970s, and a march of over 300,000 Moroccans into the territory in 1975, led to Spain's withdrawal from the province in 1976, when it was renamed Western Sahara.

Upon Spain's withdrawal, Morocco and Mauritania divided the region, with Morocco controlling the northern two thirds and Mauritania the southern third. A nationalist group, the Polisario Front, waged guerrilla warfare against the two nations with support from Algeria, calling the territory the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from its portion, which was absorbed by Morocco. Polisario continued its attacks on Moroccan strongholds; the protracted warfare caused thousands of refugees to flee into neighboring Algeria, and eventually Morocco built a defensive sand berm around the much of the area, securing its control of about four fifths of the territory.

A UN-monitored cease-fire was implemented in 1991, and a referendum was to decide the territory's future. Disputes regarding who would be permitted to vote delayed the referendum in the following years, during which time the region was integrated administratively into Morocco. UN attempts to broker a peace agreement have been unsuccessful, with Morocco, which has spent significant sums on development since the 1990s, generally rejecting any plan that might end its sovereignty over the area. Beginning in 2007 both sides participated in UN-sponsored talks, but the intermittent negotiations produced no breakthrough. In Nov., 2010, violent clashes between Sahrawis and security forces broke out after government forces moved to clear a Sahrawi protest encampment outside Laayoune.


See J. Damis, Conflict in Northwest Africa (1983); T. Hodges, Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War (1983).

Western Sahara

a disputed region of NW Africa, on the Atlantic: mainly desert; rich phosphate deposits; a Spanish overseas province from 1958 to 1975; partitioned in 1976 between Morocco and Mauritania who faced growing resistance from the Polisario Front, an organization aiming for the independence of the region as the Democratic Saharan Arab Republic. Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979 and it was taken over by Morocco. Polisario agreed to a UN-brokered cease-fire in 1991 but attempts to settle the status of the region have failed. Pop.: 316 000 (2004 est.). Area: 266 000 sq. km (102 680 sq. miles)
References in periodicals archive ?
The participation of the Moroccan delegation in this bilateral meeting, at the invitation of the Personal Envoy, is part of Morocco's continuous cooperation with the United Nations to reach a final political solution to the regional dispute over the Moroccan Sahara, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation had previously said in a statement.
With the same resolve and steadfastness, Morocco will also face up to all attempts that seek to cast doubts on the legal status of the Moroccan Sahara or question our country's right to exercise its powers and prerogatives fully on its land, in the southern provinces, just as it does in the northern part of the country.
Bordered by the Atlas mountains to the north and west and the empty wastes of the Algerian desert and Mauritania further south, the Moroccan Sahara has long since past its position of economic and political pre-eminence in the life of the Maghreb.
Boukili recalled that Algiers has been involved, since 1975, militarily, politically, diplomatically and financially in this artificial dispute, noting that "its rhetoric on human rights in the Moroccan Sahara is fundamentally political.
Underlining the direct involvement of Algeria in this dispute notably through "generous and sustained financial, military and logistical support to the Polisario, Mezouar said Algeria's positions and behavior since the outbreak of the Moroccan Sahara issue, "have made it, indeed, the main party in this regional dispute.
The Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation considered that Algeria's determination to link between its position on the issue of the Moroccan Sahara and the development of bilateral relations was 'the most dangerous condition.
The UAC is ready to bring its support and collaboration to all initiatives meant to promote better knowledge about this issue, stressing it is time to end the artificial conflict around the Moroccan Sahara and the plight of the victims forcibly held in the Tindouf camps.
The meeting of the Moroccan delegation with the Russian minister discussed the latest developments of the Moroccan Sahara, he said, recalling that the Russian official "supports the negotiation process within the criteria set by the Security Council and the UN General Secretary.
Security Council members, of the resolution 2044 on the Moroccan Sahara issue.
The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries reaffirmed their principled position on the Moroccan Sahara issue that they consider also as an issue of the GCC countries.
The Moroccan Sahara issue and the transitional justice experience were presented Wednesday in Tunis at a series of meetings held during the world social forum.
Mohamed Loulichki said Tuesday that there is no "alternative" to the negotiation on the Moroccan Sahara issue, stressing that "old approaches are now obsolete.