Western Sahara

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Western Sahara is divided; Until November 2020 the west was under the control of Morocco (green), the extreme east and south under the control of the Polisario (yellow)
Only the sand-colored " Free Zone " outside the " Moroccan Wall " was not under Moroccan sovereignty until November 2020

The Western Sahara ( Arabic الصحراء الغربية, DMG aṣ-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Ġarbiyya , Central Atlas Tamazight ⵜⴰⵏⴻⵥⵕⵓⴼⵜ ⵜⵓⵜⵔⵉⵎⵜ Taneẓṛuft Tutrimt ; Spanish Sahara Occidental ) is a territory on the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa, which was claimed by Morocco after the withdrawal of the former colonial power Spain in 1975 and was largely annexed . Morocco regards the area, which was loosely dependent on it in pre-colonial times, as part of its territory. According to an estimate from 2019, it has around 597,000 inhabitants.

The left-wing "liberation front " of the Sahrawis (the population of Western Sahara), the Frente Polisario , which emerged during Spanish colonial times , fights for an independent state, the Democratic Arab Republic of the Sahara , on the entire territory of Western Sahara. Since the armistice of 1991, the Polisario Front has controlled a strip in the east and south of the Western Sahara from the border with Algeria to the Atlantic coast .

The United Nations is calling for a referendum to be held on the final status of the area under international law. No agreement has yet been reached between Morocco and the representatives of the Saharawi people on the modalities of holding such a referendum. The main point of contention here is the question of whether, in addition to integration or autonomy, the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco should also be an option in this referendum. Morocco rejected the latter as an option in 2004.


Satellite image of the topography of Western Sahara

The area of ​​Western Sahara is located in northwest Africa on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and covers an area of ​​266,000 km². It is geographically divided into a northern part, which formed the province of Saguia el Hamra during the Spanish colonial period and in which the flat, undulating gravel and scree deserts ( hammada ) predominate. The terrain gradually rises from the coast inland to a height of around 400 meters, with the highest elevations over 700 meters in the north near the Algerian border. The southern area corresponds roughly to the former province of Río de Oro and is almost completely flat with isolated sand dunes ( Erg )that provide little variety in the uniform, almost vegetation-free gravel plain. The third type of landscape are the dry river valleys ( wadis ) that carry water in places after the rainy season , of which the Saguia el Hamra has the greatest importance for oasis economy. It is the longest river in the country with 350 kilometers until its end at Aaiún just before the Atlantic Ocean.

Climate, flora and fauna

A desert climate prevails, rain is rare, and fog is common near the coast. A more lush vegetation can only be found around the river oases and some Gueltas . One finds animal species adapted to the dry habitat, for example gerbils and thorntail agamas . The largest populations of the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal live in the caves on the Atlantic coast, especially on the Cabo Blanco Peninsula .

Administrative division

Downtown El Aaiún, 2004

Morocco divides the Western Sahara into the five provinces of Aousserd , Boujdour , Es Semara , Laâyoune and Oued ed Dahab . It is not known whether the Polisario, which controls the east of the country, has made a different division into provinces.

The biggest cities are (September 2, 2004 census):

  1. El Aaiún : 183,691 inhabitants
  2. ad-Dakhla : 58,104 inhabitants
  3. Smara : 40,347 inhabitants
  4. Boujdour : 36,843 inhabitants
  5. El Marsa : 10,229 inhabitants


The population of the Western Sahara area of ​​597,000 (2019 estimate) consists mainly of Arabs and Arabized Berbers . The Sahrawis who originally settled in the area are Arab nomads , but some of them have been living in refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria for years . Moroccan Arabic is predominantly spoken by immigrants from the north, as well as the Hassania dialect of the original population before the Moroccan settlement, a regional form of Arabic that is also widespread in neighboring Mauritania . Almost 100 percent of the residents areMuslims .

Most Sahrawis have Moroccan, Algerian or Spanish citizenship.

According to United Nations figures, the average life expectancy in Western Sahara was 68.4 years between 2010 and 2015. For women it was 69.8 years and for men it was 65.9 years.

Thanks to high birth rates and immigration from Morocco, the area has had explosive population growth since 1950.

year population year population
1950 013,766 1985 182.421
1955 021,147 1990 217.258
1960 032,761 1995 255.634
1965 050,970 2000 314.118
1970 076,874 2005 437,515
1975 074,954 2010 480.274
1980 150,877 2017 552,628

Source: UN


On the right a post of the Polisario Front, on the left behind a vehicle of the UN mission; in the south of Western Sahara (2017)

Phoenician settlements left hardly any traces, and it was only with the introduction of the camel that the area became important as a caravan transit point. After the advance of Islam , Islamic groups emerged in the area of ​​today's Western Sahara, which later also ruled a large part of North Africa and southern Spain as Almoravids .

In 1884 the Spaniards built the base Villa Cisneros, later the city of Ad-Dakhla, on the peninsula of the Rio de Oro . At the Congo Conference 1884–1885 in Berlin , the colonial powers divided Africa among themselves. The Western Sahara was awarded to Spain. The influential Sheikh Ma el-Ainin organized the resistance against the French and Spanish colonial armies in northwest Africa. He founded the city of Smara around 1900which developed into the religious, political and economic center of the region. The city, the cultural center of the Sahara, was destroyed by the French in 1913, along with its important Islamic university and library. After decades of resistance by the Sahrawis, the area of ​​Western Sahara was occupied by Spanish troops.

The territory has been on the UN list of sovereign territories without self-government since 1963 . From 1965 onwards, the UN General Assembly repeatedly demanded that Spain be decolonized in Western Sahara in resolutions that were not binding under international law. In May 1973 the Sahrawi Liberation Front Frente Polisario was founded , which took up the armed struggle against the Spanish colonial power.

In 1974 Morocco's King Hassan II called for the Western Sahara to be annexed to Morocco. In May 1975, a UN delegation in Western Sahara determined that the population wanted independence and that the Polisario Front was giving broad support. The International Court of Justice , whose jurisdiction in this case was contested by Morocco, dismissed claims to sovereignty by Morocco and Mauritania in the same year. Nevertheless, in October 1975 the Moroccan army began to attack the territory of the Western Sahara.

After Francisco Franco's death , Spain left the area. In 1975 about 350,000 Moroccans moved into the former colony in the so-called Green March to assert Moroccan claims to the area.

On February 26, 1976, an assembly of Saharawi tribal chiefs approved the division of Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, whereupon on February 27, 1976 the Polisario proclaimed the Sahara Arab Democratic Republic . Morocco did not recognize this state. The Sahara Democratic Arab Republic was admitted to the Organization for African Unity in 1984. In response, Morocco left the Organization for African Unity and was for 33 years - until January 2017 - the only African country that was not a member of this organization and the African Union that emerged from it .

Morocco declared the annexation of the northern two-thirds of the Western Sahara area in 1976 and the rest of the territory in 1979 after Mauritania withdrew from the area. These annexations were not recognized by the United Nations. Likewise, without holding the referendum called for by the United Nations, the claims of the Sahara Democratic Arab Republic on the territory of Western Sahara were not recognized.

The United Nations has a permanent MINURSO observer mission throughout the Western Sahara. The final status of the area is still unclear, as no referendum was held on the future of the area.

In 1991 a ceasefire agreement was signed between Morocco and the Polisario. In 2020, around 100,000 Sahrawis will be living in four refugee camps near the city of Tindouf in the Algerian Sahara. The area of ​​Western Sahara is divided by a fortified and mined border system . It was built by Morocco along the armistice line.

In November 2020, the Polisario declared the 29-year armistice over. As a result, fighting between Morocco and the Polisario flared up again.

See also the main article on the Western Sahara conflict .

In December 2020, Morocco became the fourth Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel as a state, as announced by US President Donald Trump and his advisory son-in-law Jared Kushner . In return, the United States recognized Morocco's sovereignty over the disputed conflict region of Western Sahara. This was rated as a diplomatic success of prestige for the African country.


Moroccan police checkpoint on the outskirts of El Aaiún

Large parts of the country are still economically undeveloped and the road network is thin. The main branches of industry are fishing , the mining of mineral resources (especially phosphate , which is one of the largest in the world) and the cultivation of date palms ( oasis economy ). The west coast is said to have great potential for generating wind energy . The entire economy of the western parts of the former Spanish colony is powered by tax revenues from Morocco heavily subsidized and expanded in the context of the settlement by Moroccans, while the unoccupied eastern part and the refugee camps in Algeria are largely dependent on international support.

Of particular importance is the phosphate open pit mine near Bou Craa , which is connected to the port of El Aaiún by the longest conveyor belt in the world. Before the ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front , the conveyor belt was often destroyed by fighters from the Polisario Front.

Morocco is also increasingly opening up Western Sahara for tourism . The beaches near Dakhla in particular are already being used for tourism to a limited extent. The tourist infrastructure is still poorly developed, although there are now direct Spanish flights from the neighboring Canary Islands . Package tourism hardly takes place.


  • Wolfgang Creyaufmüller: Nomad culture in the Western Sahara. The material culture of the Moors, their handicraft techniques and basic ornamental structures. Burgfried-Verlag, Hallein (Austria) 1983; 3rd edition: Verlagbuchhandlung Creyaufmüller, Stuttgart 1995, ISBN 3-9801032-1-8 .
  • John Mercer: Spanish Sahara. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London 1976, ISBN 978-0-04-966013-7
  • René Pélissier : Spanish Africa - Afrique Espagnole. Études sur la fin d'un empire (1957–1976). Éditions Pélissier, Orgeval (France) 2005, ISBN 2-902804-12-1
  • Ali Omar Yara: Le siècle guerrier franco-saharaoui 1910-2010 . L'Harmattan, Paris 2010, ISBN 978-2-296-11930-7

Web links

Wikimedia Atlas: Western Sahara  - geographical and historical maps
Commons : Western Sahara  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Western Sahara  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. United Nations Secretariat, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division: World Population Prospects 2019 , accessed January 21, 2020.
  2. ^ Anja Schubert: On the status of Western Sahara under international law. Info letter WD 2 - 3010 - 129/11, Scientific Services, German Bundestag, July 12, 2011, p. 8
  3. ^ Information from Minister of State Michael Roth. German Bundestag, p. 16345 , accessed on July 2, 2016 (Annex 21 to the plenary minutes of the 166th session of the German Bundestag on April 27, 2016).
  4. Effects of the international legal status of Western Sahara on Moroccan citizenship law and the asylum procedure in Germany. Scientific Services of the German Bundestag , May 25, 2016, p. 14 , accessed on July 2, 2016 (file number: WD 2 - 3000 - 063/16).
  5. ^ A b World Population Prospects - Population Division - United Nations. Retrieved July 29, 2018 .
  6. Carta de Proclamación de la Independencia de la República Arabe Saharaui Democrática , Bir Lehlu , 27 de Febrero de 1976 (Spanish) at ARSO
  7. Horst Möller , Klaus Hildebrand , Gregor Schöllgen (eds.), Amit Das Gupta, Tim Geiger, Matthias Peter and others (edit.): Files on the foreign policy of the Federal Republic of Germany 1977 , Volume 2: July 1 to December 31, 1977 . Oldenbourg, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-486-58338-0 , p. 915.
  8. Morocco re-admitted to the African Union after 33 years Die WELT, January 30, 2017.
  9. York Schaefer: In the Western Sahara the signs point to violence again. In: nzz.ch . November 20, 2020, accessed November 25, 2020 .
  10. Jörg Tiedjen: King on the train. In: jungewelt.de . November 25, 2020, accessed November 25, 2020 .
  11. Morocco also recognizes Israel . In: tagesschau.de, December 10, 2020 (accessed December 11, 2020).
  12. Alfred Hackensberger: Donald Trump's breakthrough comes at a price . In: welt.de, December 10, 2020 (accessed December 11, 2020).

Coordinates: 24 ° 26 '47.4 "  N , 12 ° 43' 4.6"  W.