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Western Sahara

Key Figures | General Information | Demography | Geography | Political Background | Economy | Disaster and response preparedness measures | Humanitarian response operations | History of Disasters | Sources

Key Figures  
Total population : 603,253 (2017)
Area : 252,120 km²
Major languages : Arabic
Number of provinces : n/a
GDP : $906.5 million USD (2007 est.)
GDP per capita : 2,500 USD
Average life expectancy : males 61.1 years, females 65.8 years (2017 est.)
Human Development Index : n/a
Literacy rate : n/a
Currency : Moroccan Dirham


General information
Western Sahara is a disputed territory on the northwest coast and in the Maghreb region of North and West Africa, partially controlled by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and partially occupied by neighboring Morocco. Occupied by Spain until the late 20th century, Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963 after a Moroccan demand. It is the most populous territory on that list, and by far the largest in area. In 1965, the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution on Western Sahara, asking Spain to decolonize the territory. One year later, a new resolution was passed by the General Assembly requesting that a referendum be held by Spain on self-determination. In 1975, Spain relinquished the administrative control of the territory to a joint administration by Morocco (which had formally claimed the territory since 1957) and Mauritania. A war erupted between those countries and a Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government in exile in Tindouf, Algeria. Mauritania withdrew its claims in 1979, and Morocco eventually secured de facto control of most of the territory, including all the major cities and natural resources. The United Nations considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and maintains that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination.

Western Sahara was inhabited almost entirely by Sahrawi pastoral nomads until the mid-20th century. Currently, more than 80% of Western Sahara’s population lives in urban areas, more than 40% in the administrative center Laayoune, the largest city. Morocco maintains a large military presence in Western Sahara and has encouraged its citizens to settle there. Western Saharan Sahrawis have been migrating to Europe, principally to former colonial ruler Spain, since the 1950s. Many who moved to refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, also have migrated to Spain and Italy. Currently, UNHCR estimates that more than 90,000 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in Tindouf, in Southern Algeria.

Western Sahara is located in Northern Africa. It borders the North Atlantic Ocean on the West, Morocco on the North, Algeria on the North East and Mauritania on the East and South.

Political background
Western Sahara is a disputed territory. A former Spanish colony, it was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Since then it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people, led by the Polisario Front founded in 1973. In 1976, Polisario declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and announced its first government. The SADR, represented by Polisario, is recognized by many governments and is a full member of the African Union. The legal status of the territory and the question of its sovereignty remain unresolved. A buffer strip or “berm” with landmines and fortifications stretches the length of the disputed territory and separates the Moroccan-administered western portion from the eastern part. Morocco controls two-thirds of Western Sahara and see it as part of its historic territory. It is considered a non-self-governed territory by the United Nations. The Morocco-controlled parts of Western Sahara are divided into several provinces treated as integral parts of the kingdom. The Moroccan government heavily subsidizes the Saharan provinces under its control. 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN-brokered truce in September 1991 and the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place. The UN-administered ceasefire has remained in effect since 1991 under the auspices of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Established in 1991, MINURSO was mandated to support a transitional period for the preparation of a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. Attempts to hold a referendum have failed and parties thus far have rejected all brokered proposals.

Western Sahara depends on pastoral nomadism, fishing, and phosphate mining as the principal sources of income for the population. The territory lacks sufficient rainfall for sustainable agricultural production, and most of the food for the urban population must be imported. Incomes in Western Sahara are substantially below neighbouring countries. The Moroccan Government controls all trade and heavy subsidies have created a state-dominated economy in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara, with the Moroccan government as the single biggest employer. Western Sahara is also believed to have untapped offshore oil deposits. The EU holds trade agreements with Morocco to allow European fisheries in the waters off the coast of Morocco, including in the disputed waters off the coast of Western Sahara. However, recently the European Court of Justice (EUJ) ruled that the EU fisheries deal should not apply to the waters off the coast of the disputed Western Sahara territory, and agriculture agreements between the EU and Morocco do not cover Western Sahara.

Disaster and response preparedness measures

Humanitarian response operations

History of disasters

UNHCR, WFP, MINURSO, BBC News, CIA Factbook, News24, The Middle East Eye