Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated area of mostly desert situated on the northwest coast of Africa.
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.
A 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN-brokered truce in 1991 and the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place.
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 area controlled by the Polisario Front.
The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by the Polisario Front in 1976, is now recognised by many governments and is a full member of the African Union.
Home to phosphate reserves and rich fishing grounds off its coast, Western Sahara is also believed to have as yet untapped offshore oil deposits.
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Disputed territory claimed by Morocco and Saharawis seeking self-determination
- Population 567,000
- Main town Laayoune
- Area 252,120 sq km (97,344 sq miles)
- Main language Arabic
- Main religion Islam
- Life expectancy 66 years (men), 70 years (women)
UN, World BankGetty Images
President of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic: Brahim Ghali
The Polisario Front proclaimed the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976, with a government in exile in Algeria.
Brahim Ghali was elected leader of the Polisario Front and president of the SADR in July 2016 following the death of long-term president Mohamed Abdelaziz Ezzedine.
Ghali was one of Polisario’s founding members in 1973 and led the first raids against the Spanish forces that sparked the armed struggle for Western Saharan independence.
Morocco’s state broadcaster RTM operates radio and TV services from Laayoune.
On the other side of the political divide, a Polisario-backed mediumwave (AM) radio station is on the air.
- RTM Laayoune – operated by Moroccan state broadcaster
- National Radio of the SADR – broadcasts in Arabic and Spanish; launched in the 1970s, the station supports the Polisario Front
- TV Laayoune – operated by Moroccan state broadcaster
- Sahara Press Service – Polisario-run
Some key dates in the history of Western Sahara:
1884 – Spain colonises Western Sahara, an area formerly populated by Berber tribes.
1934 – Becomes a Spanish province known as Spanish Sahara.
1957 – Newly-independent Morocco lays centuries-old claim to Western Sahara.
1965 – The UN calls for the decolonisation of Western Sahara.
1973 – Polisario Front, the indigenous Saharawi independence movement, is founded.
1975 – Morocco’s King Hassan defies a Hague ruling in favour of Saharawi rights to self-determination and stages the “Green March” of 350,000 Moroccans into Western Sahara. Spain withdraws.
1975-91 – Polisario Front fights a 16-year-long guerrilla war against Moroccan forces, which ends with a UN-brokered cease-fire.
1991-2000s – UN brokered cease-fire ends war but Morocco has yet to hold an agreed referendum on independence. Numerous UN-sponsored talks have failed to yield a breakthrough.