Western Sahara map

Flag description: None.

Location: Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco.

Geographic coordinates: 24 30 N, 13 00 W.

Climate: hot, dry desert; rain is rare; cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew.

Independence: -

Nationality: Sahrawi(s), Sahraoui(s).

Capital City: none.

Population: 244,943 (July 2000 est.).

Head of State: -

Area: 266,000 sq km.

Type of Government: Legal status of territory and question of sovereignty unresolved.

Territory contested by Morocco and Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), which in February 1976 formally proclaimed a government-in-exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Territory partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania in April 1976, with Morocco acquiring northern two-thirds.

Mauritania, under pressure from Polisario guerrillas, abandoned all claims to its portion in August 1979; Morocco moved to occupy that sector shortly thereafter and has since asserted administrative control; the Polisario's government-in-exile was seated as an OAU member in 1984; guerrilla activities continued sporadically, until a UN-monitored cease-fire was implemented 6 September 1991.

Currency: 1 Moroccan dirham (DH) = 100 centimes.

Major peoples: Arab, Berber.

Religion: Muslim.

Official Language: none.

Principal Languages: Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic.

Major Exports: phosphates 62%.

History: Spain established a colony there with El Aaiun (now Aiun) as its capital in 1884. After large deposits of high-grade phosphate were discovered in 1963, Morocco and Mauritania pressured Spain to relinquish its hold on the area; Algeria, and later Libya, backed an indigenous pro-independence group known as the Polisario Front.

In 1975 the World Court ruled that Western Sahara should be granted self-determination. Morocco's King HASSAN II ordered a mass march of 350,000 civilians (the Green March) into the territory.  

Although the Moroccans barely crossed the border, Spain withdrew in 1976, ceding the northern two-thirds to Morocco and the remainder to Mauritania. In 1979, after three years of desert war, Mauritania signed a treaty with the Polisario renouncing its claims; Morocco then annexed the entire area.

By the early 1980s Morocco, which had divided the area into four provinces, accepted in principle the idea of a referendum but rejected demands by the Organization of Africa Unity for direct negotiations with the Polisario.  

To stop guerrilla attacks, Morocco built a fortified wall enclosing the north-western corner of Western Sahara, which contained most of the population and mineral resources and the rich coastal fisheries.  

Drought drove many formerly nomadic Sahrawis into towns behind the wall, where Moroccan investment and settlement sparked an economic boom. Libya halted aid to the Polisario, when it signed a treaty of union with Morocco in 1984. In 1988, Morocco and the Polisario agreed to accept a UN peace plan calling for a referendum on the future of the area.