What is Western Sahara? – History and Major Facts

The Western Sahara is a disputed territory located in North Africa. It is situated on the northwest coast of Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The region is characterized by vast desert landscapes, including the Sahara Desert.

The status of the Western Sahara has been a subject of dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a liberation movement representing the Sahrawi people. The Polisario Front seeks independence for the region and has established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a government in exile.

Map of Western Sahara

Following the end of Spanish colonial rule in the 1970s, both Morocco and Mauritania claimed control over the territory, leading to armed conflict. Mauritania later withdrew its claim, leaving Morocco as the de facto administering power over most of the Western Sahara.

Efforts to resolve the issue have involved diplomatic negotiations, United Nations involvement, and attempts to hold a referendum for self-determination. However, a lasting resolution has yet to be reached, and the status of the Western Sahara remains unresolved, with ongoing disputes and tensions in the region.

Popular questions about Western Sahara

Western Sahara

Map of Western Sahara in Africa

Here is what you need to know about Western Sahara, a disputed territory in North Africa that is claimed by both Morocco and the Plisario Front representing the Sahrawi people.

Who claims sovereignty over the Western Sahara?

Both Morocco and the Polisario Front claim sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Morocco asserts that the territory is an integral part of its sovereign territory and refers to it as its “southern provinces.”

On the other hand, the Polisario Front, representing the Sahrawi people, claims sovereignty over the Western Sahara and has established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a government in exile. The Polisario Front seeks self-determination and independence for the people of the Western Sahara.

Those competing claims have resulted in a long-standing dispute and ongoing tensions in the region for a very long time.

What is the role of the United Nations in the Western Sahara conflict?

A MINURSO car (left) in 2017 in southern Western Sahara

The United Nations has played a significant role in the Western Sahara conflict. In 1991, the UN brokered a ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front, creating the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

MINURSO’s mandate includes overseeing the ceasefire, monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, and organizing a referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.

The UN has been engaged in diplomatic efforts to facilitate negotiations between the parties, promote a peaceful resolution, and support the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people. However, a referendum has not yet taken place, and the UN-led political process remains ongoing.

Has there been any progress towards a resolution or peace agreement in the Western Sahara?

While there have been various diplomatic efforts and negotiations to resolve the Western Sahara conflict, a lasting resolution or peace agreement has not been achieved thus far.

The United Nations, through its mission MINURSO, has been facilitating talks between the parties involved, but progress has been slow and marked by challenges and setbacks.

The key issue revolves around the self-determination of the Sahrawi people and determining the future status of the territory.

Despite intermittent discussions, consensus on the modalities of a referendum or alternative political solution has not been reached. The situation remains unresolved, with ongoing tensions and a need for continued diplomatic efforts to seek a peaceful resolution.

Western Sahara set up in the 1980s

Are there any natural resources in the Western Sahara that contribute to the conflict?

Yes. Natural resources in the Western Sahara have been a contributing factor to the conflict. The region is believed to have significant potential for various resources, including fisheries, phosphate deposits, potential oil reserves, and mineral resources.

For example, the waters off the coast of the Western Sahara are known for their abundant fisheries, particularly in the Atlantic Ocean. Fishing activities and access to marine resources have been a source of dispute, as they are economically valuable and crucial for the livelihoods of local communities.

Intermittent lake Dait Um Saad in Western Sahara

How does the dispute in the Western Sahara impact the local population?

The conflict has resulted in the displacement of a significant number of Sahrawi people, who have sought refuge in neighboring countries or live in refugee camps. These individuals face challenges related to access to basic necessities, limited opportunities, and the difficulty of returning to their homeland.

There have been reports of human rights abuses, including restrictions on freedom of speech, movement, and assembly. The conflict has led to the disruption of normal life, with the presence of military forces, checkpoints, and restrictions on the local population.

The dispute over the control of the territory has impacted the local population’s access to natural resources such as fisheries, mineral deposits, and potential oil reserves. The exploitation and management of these resources have become contentious issues.

The conflict has divided families and communities, with some members living in different parts of the territory or being displaced as refugees. This separation has caused emotional distress and challenges in maintaining social ties and cultural cohesion.

In the nutshell, the ongoing conflict has made it challenging for the local population to fully exercise their political rights and engage in the democratic process. Political stability and the establishment of representative institutions have been hindered, affecting the ability of the population to shape their own future.

What is the position of the international community on the Western Sahara issue?

The United Nations has been actively involved in seeking a resolution to the Western Sahara conflict. The UN supports a solution that is based on the principles of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. It has called for negotiations between the parties involved to find a mutually acceptable political solution.

The African Union (AU) has supported the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. It recognizes the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. Some individual African countries have also recognized the SADR as a sovereign state.

Countries have varied positions on the Western Sahara issue based on their historical, political, and economic ties. Some countries, such as Algeria, have been supportive of the Sahrawi cause and the Polisario Front, while others, like Morocco, have received support from their allies in their territorial claims over the region.

The neighboring countries, such as Algeria and Mauritania, have their own interests and concerns regarding the Western Sahara conflict. They have been involved in the diplomatic efforts and have hosted refugees from the region.

Western Sahara and Morocco’s stance

What is the current status of the Western Sahara dispute?

The conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front continues, with ongoing tensions and occasional outbreaks of violence. The United Nations has been engaged in diplomatic efforts to facilitate negotiations and find a lasting solution, but progress has been limited.

Why did Israel recognize Western Sahara as part of Morocco?

In July 2023, the Moroccan government revealed that Israel has recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The nation of Israel most likely took this decision as part of its effort to upgrade its relation with the North African country. Three years prior to that, Morocco normalized it relations with Israel.

Western Sahara and MINURSO

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