Western Sahara: Geography, Demographics, Politics, Economy and History

By | November 25, 2022

Western Sahara ( Arabic : الصحرة الغربية, tr. aṣ-Ṣaḥrā’ al-Gharbīyah ); officially: Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)) is a land area in northwest Africa. Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony, which both Morocco and the freedom movement Polisario claim the right to control.


Western Sahara lies between Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The country has an area of ​​266,060 km², has a 1,110 km coastline and a 2,046 km long border with other countries. The territory mostly consists of stone desert and predominantly has very little vegetation.


The indigenous population of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawis, are a nomadic people who are widespread in the Western Sahara, southern Morocco and northern Mauritania. Before the Moroccan occupation, the population consisted almost entirely of Sahrawis. When Morocco occupied the territory militarily in November 1975, the majority of the population fled to refugee camps in Algeria, where they continue to live. Morocco has since its occupationmoved a large settlement population into the country, where today they make up the majority of the population.

  • Cachedhealth: Information about Western Sahara, including geography, history, politics and economy.

The majority of the Sahrawi population (between 120,000 and 170,000) today live in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. The part of the population that lives in the occupied Western Sahara is in the minority in their own country due to the large immigrated Moroccan population.

State and politics

Western Sahara was formerly a Spanish colony. In 1975, even before the Spanish had withdrawn from the area, Morocco occupied the northwestern part of Western Sahara, and Mauritania the southwestern part. After Mauritania withdrew from the area, Morocco also occupied this part. The resistance movement, Polisario, which had previously fought against the Spaniards, began a guerilla war against the two new occupiers, Morocco and Mauritania. Oneceasefire was concluded in 1991.

As part of the ceasefire agreement, it was agreed to hold a referendum in 1992. In the vote, the local population had to decide whether they wanted the area to remain independent or to be incorporated into Morocco. Although the parties had agreed that a vote should be held, Morocco has since prevented it from taking place.

Since the area was occupied, the majority of Western Sahara’s former inhabitants have lived in refugee camps in southwestern Algeria, and a government-in- exile is also located here (in Tindouf ).

Since Moroccan forces moved into the area, Morocco has built a 2,200 km long wall through the Western Sahara, dividing the territory in two. At a distance of 5-10 kilometers, Moroccan military bases have been built to protect the wall. The wall prevents the population of the occupied territories from coming into contact with the population of the refugee camps in Algeria.

The territory is today disputed under international law. Both Morocco and the Polisario claim the area. Since the area never became independent after Spanish colonial rule, Western Sahara is treated today in the UN as Africa’s last unresolved colonial issue.

After the area was occupied, the government-in- exile of Algeria proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. This republic has been recognized by about 70 states and is a member of the African Union.


Despite the fact that Western Sahara mostly consists of desert and semi-desert, the land area is rich in natural resources. The population is traditionally nomadic. Western Sahara has, among other things, the world’s richest fish stocks and large phosphate mines. It is assumed that there are large oil and gas reserves in the seabed off the country’s coast. All economic activity in Western Sahara is controlled by the Moroccan government, which offers tax breaks and subsidiesto Moroccan settlers in the occupied territories. Incomes are nevertheless considerably lower than in Morocco. Corruption and political pressure is a big problem in the country.

The population in the refugee camps in Algeria are dependent on international aid. The area in which the camps are located are uncultivable areas of the Sahara desert.


In the city of Tifariti in the north-eastern Western Sahara, petroglyphs, cave paintings and other signs of settlements have been found which are over 8,000 years old. Along the coast it is likely that there were settlements even earlier.

Letters from the 16th century show that the Sultan of Morocco did not consider the area his own territory. During the 18th century, the area became a French colony. After the Berlin Conference, in 1884 the territory became a Spanish colony under the name Rio de Oro. The Sahrawi population in the area put up armed resistance against both the French and the Spanish. Several freedom movements have resisted right up until today’s freedom movement, Polisario, was founded in 1973. Through armed resistance, they forced the Spanish to surrender their struggle and strengthened international pressure for the colony to be dismantled.

In 1974, Spain began the process of giving the population self-determination.

Following the war between Morocco and the SADR from 1975 to 1991, three quarters of the territory is today occupied by Morocco (the coast and the western parts), while one quarter is controlled by the SADR ( the desert areas to the east ). The territory ‘s legal status is that it is treated by the United Nations as a colony, with Spain still the administrative power, since as colonial master it has not completed its responsibility to give the territory self-determination. Morocco is a de facto administrative power.

Western Sahara Economy