Western Sahara profile

  • 27 July 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.


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


President of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic: Brahim Ghali

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Brahim Ghali is one of the founding members of the Polisario Front

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 Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in July 2016 following the death of long-term president Mohamed Abdelaziz Ezzedine.

A seasoned military leader, described both as a "hard-line supporter" and "historic figure", he was one of Polisario's founding members in 1973 and led the first raids against the occupying Spanish forces that sparked the armed struggle for Western Saharan independence.

In 2008 he left his post as ambassador to Spain with unresolved charges against him alleging inhumane treatment and the torture of Saharan prisoners, and became the ambassador to Algeria.

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


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


News agency


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.

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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