*Western Sahara (EH)

Territory designation

* denotes disputed and/or occupied territory 






*Non-self governing-occupied territory, as designated by United Nations

Morocco claims of sovereignty disputed by Polisario Front & Algeria

The disputed territory of Western Sahara is approximately the size of New Zealand and is sparsely populated. It is situated along the north-western Atlantic coast of Africa, south of Morocco, with Algeria and Mauritania to the east. Although largely desert, the territory is rich in phosphate and its coastal waters are celebrated for their abundance of fish. 

A Spanish colony

Western Sahara was a colony of Spain known as Spanish Sahara until 1975 when it was occupied by Morocco. Morocco claims the territory belonged to it before 1884 when it was annexed by Spain. It is the subject of a decades-long territorial dispute between Morocco and its native Arab Sahrawi people. 

The native Sahrawi people and the Polisario Front

In 1975, the Sahrawi Polisario Front began what at first was a 16 year-long insurgency against Moroccan occupation. In 1991, the United Nations brokered a peace. Agreement included the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place.

The referendum was first earmarked for the following year, 1992, but it never took place, ostensibly due to disagreements between the Polisario Front and Morocco. 

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. Morocco left the African Union in protest at the AU's decision but was re-admitted in January 2017 after a 33 year absence.

Moroccan settlers are said to constitute two thirds of the 500,000 or so population of Western Sahara.

The "berm"

In 1981, Morocco started constructing a buffer strip made primarily out of sand and other materials for fortifications, and bristling with around 5 million landmines. The "berm" stretches the length of the disputed territory and separates the Moroccan-administered western portion of Western Sahara, the so-called "Southern Provinces", from the eastern areas, controlled by the Polisario Front, known as the free zone, or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

The berm is estimated at 1,700 miles in length (2,700 kms.) It is said to be the longest such structure in the world, as well as the world's longest continuous minefield. Approximately 100,000 Moroccan soldiers guard the berm. In places the structure extends several kilometres into official Mauritanian territory.

Morocco occupies an estimated 75% of the total territory of Western Sahara. The Polisario Front controls the remaining 20-25% of the Western Sahara territory as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and continues to claim sovereignty over the entire territory of Western Sahara.

A seemingly intractable issue

Former US Secretary of State James Baker made probably the most intensive efforts of any international statesman in resolving the Western Sahara issue. In March 1997, Mr Baker was appointed as the Personal Envoy of the UN General Secretary for Western Sahara. He held a number of rounds of negotiations with Moroccan and Polisario officials but resigned in frustration at lack of progress more than 7 years later in June 2004.

He left behind the so-called Baker Plan, also known as the Peace Plan for Self-Determination of People of Western Sahara. 

The Polisario Front rejected Baker Plan 1 because it offered the people of Western Sahara autonomy, but within a Moroccan state. Baker Plan 2 envisaged 5 years of Saharan self-rule followed by a referendum in which the Moroccan settlers were allowed to participate. Both the Polisario Front and Algeria accepted the Baker Plan as a solid basis for future negotiations and it was unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council, but it was rejected by Morocco.

Other UN Special Envoys for Western Sahara followed Baker but also drew a blank in resolving this seemingly intractable issue.

Trump recognises Morocco's claim

On December 20th, 2020, Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory was recognised by President Donald Trump, making the US the first country in the world to recognise Rabat’s claim. Recognition was a key factor in Morocco’s decision to sign the normalisation agreement with Israel and the US, known as the Abraham Accords, on December 22nd, 2020. President Joe Biden’s position on Western Sahara is under review. 

The cause of regional tensions

The official United Nations designation of the Western Sahara is as a “non-self-governing territory.” The UN continues to monitor the ceasefire and to press for negotiations between the Polisario Front and Morocco. 

The conflict has exacerbated poor relations between Morocco and its eastern neighbour Algeria, which has long supported the Polisario Front. It is one of the issues that led to the closure of the Morocco/Algeria border in 1994.

Mauritania’s founding president, Moktar Ould Daddah, also laid claim to Western Sahara but Mauritania later relinquished any claim and stated its support for Sahrawi self-determination.

Latest Moroccan autonomy initiative

In mid-March 2022, Spanish foreign minister Jose Manuel Albares backed a 2007 proposal by Morocco to offer Western Sahara autonomy under its sovereignty, describing it as the “most serious, realistic and credible basis” to end the long-running conflict. 

Spain has supported the autonomy plan as a way to resolve a long-running dispute over Western Sahara, which Morocco considers as its own territory.

In April 2022, Madrid cemented its changed position when both Spain's premier Pedro Sanchez and foreign minister Albares made a landmark visit to Morocco where they were received by King Mohammed VI, ending 8 years of diplomatic crisis between the 2 countries.

Initiative welcomed by EU but rejected by Algeria/Polisario

The European Commission welcomed Spain's new position on the fate of Western Sahara as an autonomous region of Morocco, although it still supports a potentially different path of UN efforts aimed at a fair and mutually acceptable solution.

However, both Algeria and the Polisario Front condemned Spain's decision. In March 2022, Algeria recalled its Spanish ambassador and in the following month, the Polisario Front announced it was severing ties with Spain while repeating its long-held demand for an independence referendum.

Key dates

Spain colonises Western Sahara, area formerly populated by Berbers
The Western Sahara officially becomes a Spanish colony known as the Spanish Sahara
April 1956
MOROCCAN INDEPENDENCE : Morocco gains independence from France and Spain
MOROCCO CLAIMS WESTERN SAHARA: Newly independent Morocco makes centuries-old claim to Western Sahara
The United Nations calls on Spain to de-colonise Spanish Sahara/Western Sahara
May 1973
POLISARIO FRONT FORMED: The Polisario Front, the indigenous Sahrawi movement for independence, is founded
Nov' 1975
THE GREEN MARCH: King Hassan II of Morocco puts pressure on Spain to withdraw from its North African colony by staging the "Green March" sending 350,000 Moroccans plus 20,000 troops across the border into Western Sahara urging Spain to leave
Nov' 1975
MADRID ACCORDS: Following "Green March", Spain signs the so-called Madrid Accords ceding Western Sahara to both Morocco and Mauritania. The UN does not recognise the Accords
Dec' 1975
FIRST FIGHTING AGAINST POLISARIO FRONT: Moroccan troops fight Polisario at El Aaun
Jan' 1976
MOROCCO CONFLICT WITH ALGERIA: 1st Battle at Amgala in northern Western Sahara between Moroccan and Algerian troops. Algeria said it was providing Sahrawi refugees with food and medicines, but is forced to withdraw
Feb' 1976
SPAIN LEAVES: Spain announces formal withdrawal from Western Sahara
Feb' 1976
SECOND BATTLE OF AMGALA; Polisario Front, supported by Algerian troops, push Moroccans out of Amgala in 2nd battle. Moroccan airforce bomb Sahrawi refugees camps
Aug' 1976
SADR PROCLAIMED: Polisario Front proclaim the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). SADR President -Mohamed Abdelaziz - is elected Polisario General Secretary
Aug' 1979
MAURITANIA RENOUNCES CLAIM: Under pressure from Polisario guerrillas, Mauritania abandons all claims to any share of Western Sahara. Morocco occupies Mauritania's portion and asserts admin rights over the whole territory
Feb' 1982
SADR ADMITTED TO AFRICAN UNION, To the anger of Morocco, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is admitted as a member by the African Union.
1981 - 1987
MOROCCANS BUILD THE "BERM": Morocco builds a 1,700 mile long sand wall, or "berm", through Occupied Sahara, separating Moroccan controlled areas, the Southern Provinces from Polisario-controlled east - the so-called "Free Zone"
Nov' 1984
MOROCCO BREACH WITH AFRICAN UNION: Morocco leaves the organisation of African Unity after it admits SADR, and hasn't rejoined since
Polisario Front claims to have killed at least 5,000 Moroccan soldiers between 1982-1985
UN BROKERED PEACE: UN brokers end to 16 year conflict between Morocco and Polisario Front. Peace deal includes agreement to hold an Independence referendum
REFERENDUM CANCELLED: Referendum on Sahrawi self-determination scheduled for 1992 does not take place, primarily due to opposition from Morocco. Both sides blame each other for the failure
March 1997
JAMES BAKER: Former US Secretary of State James Baker is appointed as Personal Envoy to the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara
1994 - 2004
IST SAHRAWI INTIFADA: There begins a series of successive peaceful uprisings by Sahrawi people in Occupied Western Sahara, due to lack of progress on the referendum and also on lack of human and economic rights for the Sahrawiis
James Baker mediates talks between the 2 sides in London. Agreements are reached on prisoner releases and a code of conduct for a future referendum, but not on voter eligibility
June 2001
James Baker proposed Baker 1, a plan which envisages autonomy for the Sahrawis, but within the Moroccan state. Polisario rejects the plan
June 2004
BAKER RESIGNS; James Baker resigns over failure of Baker Plan 2 that envisages a 5 year period of Sahrawi self-determination followed by a referendum allowing participation by Moroccan settlers
WIKILEAKS CLAIMS: Recently released cable by Rabat-based US diplomat Robert P. Jackson claims that Polisario independence struggle is essentially an Algerian creation, angering Sahrawi activists who point to decades of popular resistance and. nationalism
2009 - 2012
ROSS NEGOTIATIONS: US Ambassador Christopher Ross conducts 9 rounds of informal talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Morocco withdraws confidence in Ross but he retains UN support
July 2006
EU-MOROCCO AGREEMENT: Morocco and EU sign agreement allowing European fishing vessels to fish off the coat of Morocco and in the disputed waters of Western Sahara
UN Resolution: The UN adopts a resolution on Western Sahara, reasserting support for talk that will reach an agreement allowing "...Sahrawi people to exercise their right to self-determination"
Western Sahara UN Envoy Christopher Ross winds up new tour of North Africa, but returns empty-handed to New York
Nov' 2020
END OF POLISARIO CEASEFIRE: Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, announces the end of the 29 year ceasefire with Morocco, citing Moroccan border operations as a provocation
Dec' 2020
Trump's US administration becomes first to recognise Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara
Dec' 2021
POLISARIO REJECTS PEACE TALKS WITHOUT GUARANTEE: Polisario Front Leader Brahim Gali rejects UN-led peace-talks unless "Sahrawi self-determination" is guaranteed
March 2022
SPAIN BACKS MOROCCO'S AUTONOMY PLAN: Spain decides to support Moroccan Sahrawi autonomy initiative -angering both Algeria & Polisario Front
Spring 2022
ALGERIA/POLISARIO REACTION TO SPAIN: Algeria recalls Spanish ambassador & Polisario Front announced it will sever ties with Madrid
April 2022
SPAIN CONFIRMS CHANGE: Spain's prime minister Pedro Sanchez cements Spain's policy change by making landmark visit to Morocco - ending 8 years of diplomatic friction with Rabat