Western Sahara

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Western Sahara

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 late 2020, after Moroccan forces conducted a military operation in a buffer zone, the Polisario Front announced it was ending the 1991 cease-fire.


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

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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)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Le Maroc celebre le mercredi 14 aout 2019 le quarantieme anniversaire de la recuperation de la region de Oued Eddahab. Cette date memorable (14 aout 1979) constitue en effet la derniere etape de l'aboutissement de l'integrite territoriale du royaume.
El Otmani a releve que cette visite dans la region, qui intervient a quelques jours de la celebration du 40e anniversaire de la recuperation de Oued Eddahab, s'inscrit dans le cadre d'une serie de visites regionales des differentes parties du territoire national qui visent a appuyer et a contribuer a la mise en application de la regionalisation avancee en tant qu'option strategique du Royaume.
Moroccans are celebrating today the 29th anniversary of the recovery of its southern province of Oued Eddahab from Spanish occupation, a historic turning point in the process to perfect Morocco's territorial integrity.a On August 14, 1979, the population of Oued Eddahab, represented by their notables and theologians from various tribes, presented in Rabat their oath of allegiance to the late King Hassan II and reiterated their attachment to the Alawite throne, demonstrating to the world that the Sahara has always been Moroccan and it will remain Moroccan territory.aa The event shows the unshakable bonds linking the province and the rest of the kingdom and the ever-confirmed attachment of the province populations to the territorial unity and the Alawite throne.
"Foum Labouir" est egalement, a l'instar d'autres plages de la baie de Oued Eddahab, un site de renommee internationale vers lequel convergent les amateurs et les professionnels des sports nautiques, notamment le Surf et le Kitsurf.
Un meeting populaire a ete organise a cette occasion a Bir Kandouz (300 km au sud de Dakhla), marque par le salut des couleurs nationales en presence notamment du wali de la region, gouverneur de la province de Oued Eddahab, Hamid Chabar, du gouverneur de la province d'Ousserd, Al-Hassan Abou Laouane, d'une delegation du Haut commissariat aux anciens resistants et anciens membres de l'armee de liberation, des membres du Conseil royal consultatif des affaires sahariennes, des autorites locales et des representants des corps constitues et de societe civile locale.
En effet, en ce 20 ramadan 1399 de l'hegire correspondant au 14 aout 1979, les Oulemas, les notables et les chefs de tribus de la province de Oued Eddahab se sont rendus a Rabat pour renouveler leur serment d'allegeance a Feu SM Hassan II, que Dieu ait Son ame, renouant ainsi avec leur histoire et exprimant leur fidelite et leur indefectible attachement a leur marocanite et a l'integrite territoriale du Maroc
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Dans le cadre d'une operation de depistage du cancer du sein et du col de l'uterus dans deux provinces du Sud, notamment Oued Eddahab et Aousserd, du 24 septembre au 3 octobre, une recherche sera menee pour determiner l'infection responsable du cancer uterin dans ces regions.