Western Sahara, formerly the Spanish Sahara, Rio de Oro, disputed area of northwestern Africa; in 1976, the area was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania after being temporarily surrendered by Spain, but at the same time the liberation movement Polisario proclaimed the independent republic of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Mauritania withdrew in 1979, and since then all of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco. Guerrilla war and repression have meant that a large part of the population lives in refugee camps in Algeria, which supports Polisario. A ceasefire was established at the UN initiative in 1991, and the UN has since prepared a referendum on the future status of the area.
- State form: occupied territory with exile government
- Area: 266,800 km2
- Population: approximately 548,000 (2014, estimated)
- Capital: El Aaiun
Western Sahara is predominantly desert. The coast is an 800 km long coast. Steep rocky coast alternates with beach ramparts, which by the fishing village of al-Dakhla provide shelter for the only bay on the coast, the Bay of Rio de Oro. Behind the coast there are long stretches with a kilometer-wide dune belt, and behind this an 80-150 km wide coastal plain. This one is to the south covered by sandy desert, erg, with walking dunes of all sizes from single barkans to parabola dunes (see dune). In the coastal zone are salt pans, to which wadier periodically conducts water. At the far north, the wide wadi Saguia el-Hamra pierces the dune, and here the capital El Aaiun lies behind the dune, 20 km from its port area. Wadier leads to this in a wide branch network from the entire northern part of the area and from neighboring countries. During the cool season, the system is usually aquatic all the way to the coastal delta. Oases are located at springs at the edge of the wadis, and as the only place in Western Sahara, the vegetation here is bush steppe. Largest among the oases is the ancient city of al-Semara. East of the coastal plain, a number of rock plateaus rise and reach towards NØ 600 m The plateaus alternate between gravel desert (reg) and cliff faces (hamada). SOUTH of the capital, the hamada consists of phosphate minerals that are the basis for the area’s mining operations. The landscapes are heavily eroded, hard areas emerge as insel mountains, and a network of wide, deep wadis testifies to wetter climates in earlier geological periods.
Climate. Western Sahara is located in the arid area of the Northern Turbine, and the entire area has less than 100 mm of rainfall per year. Most of it is in the tropical belt, but on the plateaus to the north there may be night frosts. The coast is characterized by fog due to the cold Canary flow from the north and the upwelling of cold bottom water; it provides somewhat lower temperatures than inland.
Population. The current population figures are difficult to estimate, as any indication of census figures is politically controversial. This is because precisely the question of who should have the right to vote in deciding the future of Western Sahara is the main issue in the UN’s efforts. When the Spaniards left the area, the population was estimated at 100,000. The site is a very large part of these Sahrawis have fled to Algeria, and at the same time there has been a massive and organized colonization of immigrants from Morocco. It is estimated that today there are about 417,000 Sahrawis and Moroccans living in Western Sahara (2004) and that there are about 165,000 Sahrawis in the refugee camps in Algeria. The Sahrawi population is equally composed of light Arabs or Arabized Berbers and black descendants of slaves. The Saharawi community is traditionally a nomadic tribal and family system that includes the black population and where a few families own most.
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Industries. Traditionally, half and whole nomadism with goats, sheep and camels (dromedaries) has dominated. The semi-nomads have horticulture at sources and in oases where millet, barley, corn, peanuts, dates and citrus fruits are grown. The total cultivated area during the Spanish period was 50,000 ha, less than 2 ‰ of the area. The coastal waters are rich in fish, and al-Dakhla is the center of both traditional and modern fishing as well as the processing industry. In addition, The EU acquired fishing rights in the territorial waters of Western Sahara. Economically more important, however, is the mining industry, where the extraction of phosphate since 1967 has been carried out at Bukra.
The government language is, as in Morocco, modern standard Arabic, and the spoken language hassaniya as in Mauritania. However, among Moroccan immigrants, different Moroccan dialects are spoken.
The area was little explored when Spain secured control of the coastal country in 1884 and then established a Spanish protectorate. Only in 1934 did Spain have control over Western Sahara. Shortly after Morocco’s independence in 1956, the country claimed the Spanish colony, and a few years later Mauritania followed suit. From the early 1970’s, several different groups in Western Sahara began to demand independence and wage armed struggle; Against this background, Spain began its withdrawal in 1975. In the same year, Morocco began a civilian occupation (see the Green March), and in 1976, when the Spanish withdrawal was complete, Mauritania and Morocco split the Western Sahara. This year, the biggest liberation movement proclaimed, Polisario, an independent republic with support from, among others, Algeria and started a war against the two occupying powers. Mauritania withdrew in 1979 from its southern third of Western Sahara, which Morocco immediately annexed. Despite Polisario’s protests, Morocco has since considered the area an integral part of the Moroccan kingdom. Following an agreement in 1988 that a referendum held by the UN to decide the future of Western Sahara, Morocco and Polisario entered into a ceasefire in 1991. However, the vote has never been held. Negotiations are under way at UN level to resolve the conflict.