Africa

Western Sahara profile

  • 2 June 2016
  • From the section Africa
Map of Western Sahara

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.

Although under the de facto administrative control of Morocco, the status and sovereignty of Western Sahara remain unresolved and numerous direct talks have failed to break the political deadlock.

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.

FACTS

Western Sahara

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)

Getty Images

LEADER

Acting president of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic: Khatri Addouh

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Former SADR president Mohamed Abdelaziz led the Polisario Front from 1976 until his death

The Polisario Front proclaimed the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976, with a government in exile in Algeria.

Mohamed Abdelaziz Ezzedine, who had been president of the SADR since 1980, died in 2016 after a long illness.

He was one of the founding members of the Polisario Front and had served as its secretary-general since 1976.

Khatri Addouh became acting SADR president and secretary-general of the Polisario Front on the death of Mr Abdelaziz, pending elections for a new president. Mr Addouh was previously the speaker of the Saharawi National Council.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Saharawis say Morocco extracts and exports phosphate rock illegally

MEDIA

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.

Radio

  • 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

Television

News agency

TIMELINE

Some key dates in the history of Western Sahara:

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Morocco emphasised its claim to Western Sahara by bringing thousands of Moroccans into the region during the "Green March"

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 transfers administrative control to Morocco and Mauritania.

1975-91 - Polisario Front fights a 16-year-long guerrilla war against Moroccan forces, which ends with a UN-brokered cease-fire.

1975-76 - Morocco annexes two-thirds of Western Sahara after colonial power Spain withdraws. Polisario guerrillas declare the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with a government-in-exile in Algeria. Thousands of Sahrawi refugees flee to western Algeria to set up camps near the town of Tindouf.

1979 - Mauritania renounces all claims to Western Sahara leaving Morocco to annex its share of the territory.

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.

2016 - Long-term leader Mohamed Abdelaziz Ezzedine dies. Saharawi National Council speaker Khatri Addouh becomes SADR acting president.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Members of the Saharan People's Liberation Army hold a parade in Algeria to mark the 40th anniversary of the declaration of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic

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