Western Sahara

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
Save to active project

Western Sahara

Western Sahara, territory (2005 est. pop. 273,000), 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.

Economy

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.

History

There is evidence of trade between the Western Sahara and Europe by the 4th cent. BC 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 subdivided 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 wall around 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.

Bibliography

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

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Western Sahara
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?