|THE WESTERN SAHARA COAT OF ARMS|
Location of Western Sahara within the continent of Africa
Map of Western Sahara
Flag Description of Western Sahara:In the area controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the flag used has a black, white, and green horizontal tricolor, with a red star and crescent in the center stripe and a red triangle at the hoist.
- 10 Moroccan Dirhams
Ethnicity: Arab, Berber
GDP total: $906.5 million (2007 est.)
GDP per capita: $2,500 (2007 est.)
Language: Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic
Largest Cities: (by population) Laayoune, Ad Dakhla
National Day: n/a
About Western Sahara
Western Sahara is a disputed territory on the northwest coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. After Spain withdrew from its former colony of Spanish Sahara in 1976, Morocco annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara and claimed the rest of the territory in 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal. A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front contesting Morocco's sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping operation. As part of this effort, the UN sought to offer a choice to the peoples of the Western Sahara between independence (favored by the Polisario Front) or integration into Morocco. A proposed referendum never took place due to lack of agreement on voter eligibility. The 2,700 km- (1,700 mi-) long defensive sand berm, built by the Moroccans from 1980 to 1987 and running the length of the territory, continues to separate the opposing forces with Morocco controlling the roughly 80 percent of the territory west of the berm. Ethnic tensions in Western Sahara occasionally erupt into violence requiring a Moroccan security force response.
Western Sahara, Arabic Al-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Gharbiyyah, formerly (1958–76) Spanish Sahara , territory occupying an extensive desert Atlantic-coastal area (97,344 square miles [252,120 square km]) of northwest Africa. It is composed of the geographic regions of Río de Oro (“River of Gold”), occupying the southern two-thirds of the region (between Cape Blanco and Cape Bojador), and Saguia el-Hamra, occupying the northern third. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and northwest, by Morocco on the north, by Algeria for a few miles in the northeast, and by Mauritania on the east and south. Pop. (2007 est.) 489,000.
Geography of Western Sahara
Western Sahara is virtually all desert and is very sparsely inhabited. The Kasbah and mosque in the town of Semara (Smara) are among the major Muslim monuments in Western Sahara. The principal city is Laayoune, the old colonial capital. There is little agriculture in the region; camels, goats, and sheep are raised, and dried fish is exported to the Canary Islands. Sources of potash and iron ore are at Agracha and elsewhere, and vast phosphate deposits are at Bu Craa, southeast of Laayoune. Phosphate extraction, however, presents problems because of the shortage of water. A conveyor belt more than 60 miles (100 km) long, meant to carry phosphate from the mines to the piers southwest of Laayoune, was frequently damaged after 1976 during the guerrilla warfare conducted by the Saharawis against Morocco. Motorable tracks abound in the country’s extremely flat terrain, but there are few paved roads. There is regular air service between Laayoune and Al-Dakhla (formerly Villa Cisneros) and between Laayoune and Las Palmas (in the Canary Islands), Nouakchott (in Mauritania), and Casablanca (in Morocco).
It is is bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The land is some of the most arid and inhospitable on the planet, but is rich in phosphates in Bou Craa. The largest city is El Aaiún (Laayoune), which is home to two-thirds of the population.
NASA photo of El Aaiún. Saguia el Hamra is the northern third and includes Laayoune. Río de Oro is the southern two-thirds (south of Cape Bojador), with the city of Dakhla. The peninsula in the extreme southwest, with the city of Lagouira, is called Ras Nouadhibou, Cap Blanc, or Cabo Blanco. The eastern side is part of Mauritania.
The climate is hot, dry desert; rain is rare; cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew. Hot, dry, dust/sand-laden sirocco winds can occur during winter and spring; widespread harmattan haze exists 60 percent of the time, often severely restricting visibility.
The terrain is mostly low, flat desert with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains in the south and northeast. Along the coast, steep cliffs line the shore, and shipwrecks are visible. The lowest point is Sebjet Tah (-55 m) and the highest point (unnamed) is 463 m. Natural resources are phosphates and iron ore. Water and arable land are scarce.
Plant and animal life is restricted to those species adapted to desert conditions, such as fennec foxes, jerboas and other rodents, and hyenas. Reptiles include lizards and snakes.
Demography of Western Sahara
Although as large as the United States, the Sahara (excluding the Nile valley) is estimated to contain only some 2.5 million inhabitants—less than 1 person per square mile (0.4 per square kilometre). Huge areas are wholly empty, but wherever meagre vegetation can support grazing animals or reliable water sources occur, scattered clusters of inhabitants have survived in fragile ecological balance with one of the harshest environments on earth.
Long before recorded history, the Sahara was evidently more widely occupied. Stone artifacts, fossils, and rock art, widely scattered through regions now far too dry for occupation, reveal the former human presence, together with that of game animals, including antelopes, buffalo, giraffe, elephant, rhinoceros, and warthog. Bone harpoons, accumulations of shells, and the remains of fish, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses are associated with prehistoric settlements along the shores of ancient Saharan lakes. Among some groups, hunting and fishing were subordinated to nomadic pastoralism, after domesticated livestock appeared in the Sahara almost 7,000 years ago. The cattle-herding groups of the Ténéré region of Niger are believed to have been either ancestral Berbers or ancestral Zaghawa; sheep and goats were apparently introduced by groups associated with the Capsian culture of northeastern Africa. Direct evidence of agriculture first appears about 6,000 years ago with the cultivation of barley and emmer wheat in Egypt; these appear to have been introduced from Asia. Evidence of the domestication of native African plants is first found in pottery from about 1000 bce discovered in Mauritania. The cultivators have been associated with the Gangara, the ancestors of the modern Soninke.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Sahara was increasingly inhabited by diverse populations, and plant and animal domestication led to occupational specialization. While the groups lived separately, the proximity of settlements suggests an increasing economic interdependence. External trade also developed. Copper from Mauritania had found its way to the Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean by the 2nd millennium bce. Trade intensified with the emergence of the Iron Age civilizations of the Sahara during the 1st century bce, including the civilization centred in Nubia.
caravan [Credit: © Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock.com]The greater mobility of nomads facilitated their involvement in the trans-Saharan trade. Increasing aridity in the Sahara is documented in the transition from cattle and horses to camels. Although camels were used in Egypt by the 6th century bce, their prominence in the Sahara dates from only the 3rd century ce. Oasis dwellers in the Sahara were increasingly subject to attack by the Sanhaja (a Berber clan) and other camel-mounted nomads—many of whom had entered the desert to avoid the anarchy and warfare of the late Roman period in North Africa. Many of the remaining oasis dwellers, among them the Haratin, were subjugated by the nomads. The expansion of Islam into North Africa between the 7th and 11th centuries prompted additional groups of Berbers, as well as Arab groups wishing to retain traditional beliefs, to move into the Sahara. Islam eventually expanded through the trade routes, becoming the dominant social force in the desert.
Ghardaïa [Credit: Bernard P. Wolff/Photo Researchers]Despite considerable cultural diversity, the peoples of the Sahara tend to be categorized as pastoralists, sedentary agriculturalists, or specialists (such as the blacksmiths variously associated with herders and cultivators). Pastoralism, always nomadic to some degree, occurs where sufficient scanty pasturage exists, as in the marginal areas, on the mountain borders, and in the slightly moister west. Cattle appear along the southern borders with the Sahel, but sheep, goats, and camels are the mainstays in the desert. Major pastoral groups include the Regeibat of the northwestern Sahara and the Chaamba of the northern Algerian Sahara. Hierarchical in structure, the larger pastoral groups formerly dominated the desert. Warfare and raids (ghazw) were endemic, and in drought periods wide migrations in search of pasture took place, with heavy loss of animals. The Tuareg (who call themselves Kel Tamasheq) were renowned for their warlike qualities and fierce independence. Although they are Islamic, they retain a matriarchal organization, and the women of the Tuareg have an unusual degree of freedom. The Moorish groups to the west formerly possessed powerful tribal confederations. The Teda, of the Tibesti and its southern borderlands, are chiefly camel herders, renowned for their independence and for their physical endurance.
oasis: Kerzaz oasis, Algeria [Credit: Victor Englebert]In the desert proper, sedentary occupation is confined to the oases, where irrigation permits limited cultivation of the date palm, pomegranate, and other fruit trees; such cereals as millet, barley, and wheat; vegetables; and such specialty crops as henna. Cultivation is in small “gardens,” maintained by a great expenditure of hand labour. Irrigation utilizes ephemeral streams in mountain areas, permanent pools (gueltas), foggaras (inclined underground tunnels dug to tap dispersed groundwater in the beds of wadis), springs (ʿayn), and wells (biʾr). Some shallow groundwaters are artesian, but it is often necessary to use water-lifting devices. Ancient methods such as the shadoof (a pivoted pole and bucket) and the animal-driven noria (a Persian wheel with buckets) have been replaced by motorized pumps in more accessible oases. Water availability strictly limits oasis expansion, and, in some, overuse of water has produced a serious fall in the water level. Salinization of the soil by the fierce evaporation and burial by encroaching sand are further dangers.
Economy of Western Sahara
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.
Government of Western Sahara
Legal status of the territory is disputed and sovereignty unresolved; a UN referendum on the issue is planned. The territory is contested by Morocco and the Polisario Front, which in Feb. 1976, formally proclaimed a government-in-exile of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, now officially recognized by about 55 countries.
Police checkpoint at suburbs of Laayoune. The legal status of the territory and the question of its sovereignty remains unresolved; 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 with cut-rate fuel and related subsidies, to appease nationalist dissent and attract immigrants -or settlers-from loyalist Sahrawi and other communities in Morocco proper.
The exiled government of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is a form of single-party parliamentary and presidential system, but according to its constitution, this will be changed into a multi-party system at the achievement of independence. It is presently based at the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, which it controls. It also claims to control the part of Western Sahara to the east of the Moroccan sand wall. This area is more or less unpopulated and the Moroccan government views it as a no-man's land patrolled by UN troops.
Both Morocco and the Polisario accuse each other of violating the human rights of the populations under their control, in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, respectively. Morocco and organizations such as France Libertés consider Algeria to be directly responsible for any crimes committed on its territory, and accuse the country of having been directly involved in such violations.
Morocco has been repeatedly criticized by international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Polisario has received criticism on its treatment of Moroccan prisoners-of-war, and on its general behavior in the Tindouf refugee camps. A number of former Polisario officials who have defected to Morocco accuse the organization of abuse of human rights and sequestration of the population in Tindouf.
According to the pro-Morocco Moroccan American Center for Policy, Algeria is the primary financial, political, and military supporter of the Polisario Front. Though Libya and countries of the former Soviet bloc historically backed Polisario, their support has decreased since the end of the Cold War.
Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps depend on humanitarian aid donated by several UN organizations as well as international non-governmental organizations. It is widely believed that much of this humanitarian aid never reaches those it is intended to assist because it is sold on the black market in neighboring countries by Polisario. While many in the international community have called for a census and an audit system to ensure the transparent management of the humanitarian aid, to date Polisario has not allowed either a census or independent oversight of its management of humanitarian assistance.
Cuba also supports the Polisario Front and has been accused of kidnapping Sahrawi youth from the refugee camps and sending them to Castro’s Island of Youth, where they are inundated with anti-Western, Marxist-Leninist teachings. The Polisario Front’s objective for the deportation of Sahrawi children is said to be 1) to separate families and 2) to keep pressure on family members who remain in the camps to go along with Polisario leadership so as not to endanger their children’s welfare.
Tifariti, in the Free Zone, east of the Moroccan Berm. The Western Sahara was partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania in April 1976, with Morocco acquiring the northern two-thirds of the territory. When Mauritania, under pressure from Polisario guerrillas, abandoned all claims to its portion in August 1979, Morocco moved to occupy that sector shortly thereafter and has since asserted administrative control over the whole territory. The official Moroccan government name for Western Sahara is the "Southern Provinces," which indicates Río de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra.
Not under control of the Moroccan government is the area that lies between the sand wall and the actual border with Algeria. The Polisario Front claims to run this as the Free Zone on behalf of the SADR. The area is patrolled by Polisario forces, and access is restricted, even among Sahrawis, due to the harsh climate, the military conflict, and the abundance of land mines.
The Polisario forces (of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army, or SPLA) in the area are divided into seven "military regions," each controlled by a top commander reporting to the president of the Polisario-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
History of Western Sahara
Little is known of the prehistory of Western Sahara, although Neolithic (New Stone Age) rock engravings in Saguia el-Hamra and in isolated locations in the south suggest that it was occupied by a succession of hunting and pastoral groups, with some agriculturists in favoured locales, prior to a gradual process of desertification that began about 2500 bce. By the 4th century bce there was trade between Western Sahara and Europe across the Mediterranean; the Phoenicians sailed along the west coast of Africa in this period. The Romans also had some contact with the Saharan peoples. By medieval times this part of the Sahara was occupied by Ṣanhajāh Amazigh (Berber) peoples who were later dominated by Arabic-speaking Muslim Bedouins from about 1000 ce.
In 1346 the Portuguese discovered a bay that they mistakenly identified with a more southerly Río de Oro, probably the Sénégal River. The coastal region was little explored by Europeans until Scottish and Spanish merchants arrived in the mid-19th century, although in 1476 a short-lived trading post, Santa Cruz de Mar Pequeña, was established by Diego García de Herrera, a Spaniard. In 1884 Emilio Bonelli, of the Sociedad Española de Africanistas y Colonistas (“Spanish Society of Africanists and Colonists”), went to Río de Oro bay and signed treaties with the coastal peoples. Subsequently, the Spanish government claimed a protectorate over the coastal zone. Further Spanish penetration was hindered by French claims to Mauritania and by partisans of Sheikh Māʾ al-ʿAynayn, who between 1898 and 1902 constructed the town of Semara at an inland oasis. Cape Juby (Ṭarfāyah) was occupied for Spain by Col. Francisco Bens in 1916, Güera was occupied in 1920, and Semara and the rest of the interior were occupied in 1934.
In 1957 the territory was claimed by Morocco, which itself had just reached independence the previous year. Spanish troops succeeded in repelling Moroccan military incursions into the territory, and in 1958 Spain formally united Río de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra into a Spanish province known as Spanish Sahara. However, the situation was further complicated by newly independent Mauritania’s claims to the province in 1960, and in 1963 huge phosphate deposits were discovered at Bu Craa in the northern portion of the Spanish Sahara, which made the province a potentially economically valuable prize for any country that could firmly establish possession of it. Mining of the deposits at Bu Craa began in 1972.
Decades of social and economic change caused by drought, desertification, and the impact of the phosphate discoveries resulted in an increase in national consciousness and anticolonial sentiment. A guerrilla insurgency by the Spanish Sahara’s indigenous inhabitants, the nomadic Saharawis, sprang up in the early 1970s, calling itself the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front). The insurgency led Spain to declare in 1975 that it would withdraw from the area. Faced with consistent pressure from Morocco and Mauritania and itself undergoing a period of domestic uncertainty, Spain agreed to the partition of Western Sahara between the two countries despite a World Court ruling that Morocco’s and Mauritania’s legal claims to the Spanish Sahara were tenuous and did not negate the right to self-determination by the Saharawis. Morocco gained the northern two-thirds of the area and, consequently, control over the phosphates; Mauritania gained the southern third. Sporadic fighting developed between the Polisario Front, which was supported by and based in Algeria, and the Moroccan forces. In 1976 the Polisario Front declared a government-in-exile of what it called the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (a government recognized by some 70 countries), and it continued to raid Mauritanian and Moroccan outposts in Western Sahara.
Mauritania bowed out of the fighting and reached a peace agreement with the Polisario Front in 1979, but in response Morocco promptly annexed Mauritania’s portion of Western Sahara. Morocco fortified the vital triangle formed by the Bu Craa mines, Laayoune, and Semara while the Polisario Front guerrillas continued their raids. A United Nations (UN) peace proposal in 1988 specified a referendum for the indigenous Saharawi to decide whether they wanted an independent Western Sahara under Polisario Front leadership or whether the territory would officially become part of Morocco. This peace proposal was accepted by both Morocco and the Polisario Front, and the two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1991. As a UN administrative and peacekeeping force arrived in Western Sahara to prepare to conduct the referendum, however, Morocco moved tens of thousands of “settlers” into the territory and insisted that they have their voting qualifications assessed. This drawn-out procedure, which involved questions regarding the definition of who among the traditionally nomadic Saharawis would be entitled to cast a ballot, continued throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century. Meanwhile, Morocco continued to expand its physical infrastructure in Western Sahara despite widespread protests against its presence in the areas under its control.
During this time the Polisario Front continued its campaign despite a number of setbacks. Among the challenges were defections from the organization and a reduction in support by its primary backer, Algeria, as that country was forced to concentrate on its own internal problems. Algeria’s diplomatic campaign on behalf of Saharawi self-determination, however, continued unabated. By 2001 tens of thousands of Western Saharans, including numerous Polisario Front soldiers, had relocated to semipermanent refugee camps in Algeria.
Western Sahara (proposed state)
Languages:Standard Arabic (national), Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic
Ethnicity/race: Arab, Berber
Economic summary: GDP/PPP: $906.5 million (2007 est.) Inflation: n.a. Arable land: 0.02%. Agriculture: fruits and vegetables (grown in the few oases); camels, sheep, goats (kept by nomads); fish. Labor force: 144,000 (2010 est.); animal husbandry and subsistence farming 50%. Industries: phosphate mining, handicrafts. Natural resources: phosphates, iron ore. Exports: n.a.: phosphates 62%. Imports: n.a.: fuel for fishing fleet, foodstuffs. Major trading partners: Morocco claims and administers Western Sahara, so trade partners are included in overall Moroccan accounts.
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: about 2,000 (1999 est.); mobile cellular: 0 (1999). Radio broadcast stations: Morocco's state-owned broadcaster, Radio-Television Marocaine (RTM), operates a radio service from Laayoune and relays TV service; a Polisario-backed radio station also broadcasts (2008). Radios: 56,000 (1997). Television broadcast stations: n.a. Televisions: 6,000 (1997). Internet Service Providers (ISPs): 1 (2000).
Transportation: Railways: 0 km. Highways: total: 6,200 km; paved: 1,350 km; unpaved: 4,850 km (1991 est.). Ports and harbors: Ad Dakhla, Cabo Bojador, Laayoune (El Aaiun). Airports: 6 (2013).
International disputes: Many neighboring states reject Moroccan administration of Western Sahara; several states have extended diplomatic relations to the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" represented by the Polisario Front in exile in Algeria, while others recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara; approximately 90,000 Sahrawi refugees continue to be sheltered in camps in Tindouf, Algeria, which has hosted Sahrawi refugees since the 1980s.
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