Western Sahara is an arid territory in North Africa bordering Morocco to the north, Algeria to the east, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Formerly a territory of Spain, Western Sahara is currently divided between Morocco, which claims it as an integral part of that country, and the government-in-exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
As they existed before Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco, the Sahrawis were descendants of two ethnic groups, Sanhaja Berbers who penetrated Western Sahara c. 1000 BC, and Maqil Arabs who reached the Atlantic from Yemen c. 1218 AD and who eventually subdued the Sanhaja in the mid-seventeenth century. The Spanish began raids from the nearby Canary Islands on caravans skirting the coast in 1405. They also built the fort of Santa Cruz de Mar Pequeña in 1476 and occupied it intermittently until 1524, at which time it was abandoned under attack by the Sahrawis and its exact location forgotten.
Spanish interest in the territory was rekindled in the late 19th century as "africanistas" advanced a policy of exploration and exploitation in both northwest and equatorial Africa. Spanish commercial interests obtained coastal fishing rights from the Sahrawis in the 1870's, and in 1881 established a fishing pontoon in the Rio de Oro ("River of Gold"). Three years later the Spanish secured the Dakhla Peninsula from the Sahrawis and founded the fort and settlement of Villa Cisneros (Ad Dakhla). Additional fortified settlements were built at La Guera (Laguouira) on Cape Blanc in 1920 and at El-Ayoun (Laayoune) in the far north in 1938. The Spanish government had declared a protectorate over portions of the coast between 1884 and 1887, and Franco-Spanish conventions of 1900-1912 established the territory's boundaries. During the mid-1930's the Spanish formally divided the territory into two administrative units, Saguia el-Hamra (Arabic for "red river") and Río de Oro (Spanish for "river of gold"), named for its most prominent geographic features.
In 1975 Morocco pressed its claim to Western Sahara as part of "Greater Morocco," and on October 16 of that year initiated the so-called "Green March" of some 300,000 civilians into Western Sahara. On November 14 Spain signed the Madrid Agreement, ceding Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania. The following year the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed in defiance of Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation. The principal instrument of Sahrawi resistance has been the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro), better known as Polisario, which ironically enough was created in 1973 to fight the Spanish. Polisario forced Mauritania to withdraw from the conflict in 1979, at which time Morocco laid claim to the entire territory.
Since 1979 Morocco has erected a fortified wall enclosing the western four-fifths of the territory, occupied it militarily, and resettled it with large numbers of Moroccan civilians. During the same time Algeria has given refuge to many Sahrawis in its Tindouf Province. In 1991 the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) brokered a cease-fire in 1991, but in 1996 abandoned efforts to bring about a vote. Subsequent efforts by UN Special Envoy James Baker proved equally fruitless.
Western Sahara is currently divided between a western, Moroccan-occupied region (bounded by a fortified wall), and a smaller, eastern region over which the SADR holds sway. According to The World Factbook, parts of the Moroccan regions of Guelmim-Es Smara and Laayoune-Boujdour-Sakia El Hamra lie within Western Sahara. The Moroccan region of Oued Eddahab-Lagouira lies entirely within Western Sahara.
Economic activities within the Moroccan zone in are under the complete control of Morocco. Outside of the few settlements, Sahrawis rely on pastoral nomadism. The territory possesses some of the world’s richest phosphate deposits, and some residents maintain themselves through mining. Rich fishing beds lie off the coast, although commercial fishing has yet to be developed to any substantial degree. There is evidence that petroleum fields may lie off the coast, and recently both Morocco and the SADR have attempted to sell licenses for prospecting.
Per capita income is significantly lower than that of Morocco itself. Sahrawis living in refugee camps in Algeria rely entirely on Algerian and foreign aid.
Western Sahara's area is approximately 266,000 square kilometers (102,703 square miles), a bit larger than the Great Britain and about the same as New Zealand and the U.S. state of Colorado. Although the territory was savanna as recently as 2500 BC, today it is a barren, often rocky desert with practically no arable soil. Its coastline is approximately 1110 kilometers (688 miles) long, and is broken only by the Dakhla Peninsula and the long, narrow bay of the Río de Oro ("River of Gold") that it encloses. Its lowest point is the Tah Depression in the extreme north, approximately 55 meters (180 feet) below sea level, while its highest point is generally considered to lie in the Amarrasit Massif in the south, approximately 463 meters (1519 feet) above sea level. Although considerable water deposits have been detected far below its surface, Western Sahara has little available fresh water; its only important watercourse is the 650-kilometer (404-mile) Saguia el-Hamra in the north, which runs dry in the summer. Rainfall in the interior is almost nonexistent, and temperatures can range from 0 degrees C (32 degrees F) at night to more than 50 degrees C (122 F) during the day.
Native Sahrawis are descendants of Sanhaja Berbers and Maqil Arabs. According to The World Factbook, the territory’s population was about 382,617 in mid-2007, although as many as 155,000 Sahrawis are estimated to be living in refugee camps in southwestern Algeria. Almost all Sahrawis are Sunni Muslim and speak Hassaniya Arabic and Moroccan Arabic dialects.