Western Sahara Conflict

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. 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 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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Western Sahara Conflict: Selected full-text books and articles

International Dimensions of the Western Sahara Conflict By Yahia H. Zoubir; Daniel Volman Praeger Publishers, 1993
Algeria, the Maghreb Union, and the Western Sahara Stalemate By Zunes, Stephen Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer 1995
Conflict Resolution in Africa By Francis M. Deng; I. William Zartman Brookings Institution, 1991
Librarian's tip: Discussion of the Western Sahara conflict begins on p. 19
Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa By Francis M. Deng; Sadikiel Kimaro; Terrence Lyons; Donald Rothchild; I. William Zartman Brookings Institution, 1996
Librarian's tip: Discussion of the Western Sahara conflict begins on p. 144
Economic Crisis and Political Change in North Africa By Azzedine Layachi Praeger Publishers, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "Western Sahara: Political Economy of a Conflict"
North Africa in Transition: State, Society, and Economic Transformation in the 1990s By Yahia H. Zoubir University Press of Florida, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 12 "The Geopolitics of the Western Sahara Conflict"
Studies in Power and Class in Africa By Irving Leonard Markovitz Oxford University Press, 1987
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 'Wars of Liberation and the International System: Western Sahara--A Case in Point"
Diversity and Self-Determination in International Law By Karen Knop Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: "Western Sahara" begins on p. 110
Peace-Maintenance: The Evolution of International Political Authority By Jarat Chopra Routledge, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 7 "Peace-Maintenance in Divided Western Sahara"
Rightsizing the State: The Politics of Moving Borders By Brendan O'Leary; Ian S. Lustick; Thomas Callaghy Oxford University Press, 2001
Librarian's tip: Chap. 10 "Indigestible Lands? Comparing the Fates of Western Sahara and East Timor"
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