Main Content

Africa :: Western Sahara Print
Page last updated on November 13, 2018
View 1 photos of
WESTERN SAHARA
  • Introduction :: Western Sahara
  • Background field listing
    Western Sahara is a non-self governing territory on the northwest coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. After Spain withdrew from its former colony of Spanish Sahara in 1976, Morocco annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara and claimed the rest of the territory in 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal. A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front contesting Morocco's sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping operation. As part of this effort, the UN sought to offer a choice to the peoples of Western Sahara between independence (favored by the Polisario Front) or integration into Morocco. A proposed referendum never took place due to lack of agreement on voter eligibility. The approximately 1,600 km- (almost 1,000 mi-) long defensive sand berm, built by the Moroccans from 1980 to 1987 and running the length of the territory, continues to separate the opposing forces with Morocco controlling the roughly three-quarters of the territory west of the berm. There are periodic ethnic tensions between the native Sahrawi population and Moroccan immigrants. Morocco maintains a heavy security presence in the territory.
  • Geography :: Western Sahara
  • Location field listing
    Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco
    Geographic coordinates field listing
    24 30 N, 13 00 W
    Map references field listing
    Africa
    Area field listing
    total: 266,000 sq km
    land: 266,000 sq km
    water: 0 sq km
    country comparison to the world: 79
    Area - comparative field listing
    about the size of Colorado
    Land boundaries field listing
    total: 2,049 km
    border countries (3): Algeria 41 km, Mauritania 1564 km, Morocco 444 km
    Coastline field listing
    1,110 km
    Maritime claims field listing
    contingent upon resolution of sovereignty issue
    Climate field listing
    hot, dry desert; rain is rare; cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew
    Terrain field listing
    mostly low, flat desert with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains in south and northeast
    Elevation field listing
    mean elevation: 256 m
    elevation extremes: -55 m lowest point: Sebjet Tah
    805 highest point: unnamed elevation
    Natural resources field listing
    phosphates, iron ore
    Land use field listing
    agricultural land: 18.8% (2011 est.)
    arable land: 0% (2011 est.) / permanent crops: 0% (2011 est.) / permanent pasture: 18.8% (2011 est.)
    forest: 2.7% (2011 est.)
    other: 78.5% (2011 est.)
    Irrigated land field listing
    0 sq km (2012)
    Population distribution field listing
    most of the population lives in the two-thirds of the area west of the berm (Moroccan-occupied) that divides the territory; about 40% of that populace resides in Laayoune
    Natural hazards field listing
    hot, dry, dust/sand-laden sirocco wind can occur during winter and spring; widespread harmattan haze exists 60% of time, often severely restricting visibility
    Environment - current issues field listing
    desertification; overgrazing; sparse water and lack of arable land
    Geography - note field listing
    the waters off the coast are particularly rich fishing areas
  • People and Society :: Western Sahara
  • Population field listing
    619,551 (July 2018 est.)

    note: estimate is based on projections by age, sex, fertility, mortality, and migration; fertility and mortality are based on data from neighboring countries

    country comparison to the world: 168
    Nationality field listing
    noun: Sahrawi(s), Sahraoui(s)
    adjective: Sahrawi, Sahrawian, Sahraouian
    Ethnic groups field listing
    Arab, Berber
    Languages field listing
    Standard Arabic, Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Berber, Spanish, French
    Religions field listing
    Muslim
    Demographic profile field listing

    Western Sahara is a non-self governing territory; approximately 75% is under Moroccan control. It was inhabited almost entirely by Sahrawi pastoral nomads until the mid-20th century. Their traditional vast migratory ranges, based on following unpredictable rainfall, did not coincide with colonial and later international borders. Since the 1930s, most Sahrawis have been compelled to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and to live in urban settings as a result of fighting, the presence of minefields, job opportunities in the phosphate industry, prolonged drought, the closure of Western Sahara’s border with Mauritania from 1979-2002, and the construction of the defensive berm separating Moroccan- and Polisario-controlled (Sahrawi liberalization movement) areas. Morocco supported rapid urbanization to facilitate surveillance and security.

    Today more than 80% of Western Sahara’s population lives in urban areas; more than 40% live in the administrative center Laayoune. Moroccan immigration has altered the composition and dramatically increased the size of Western Sahara’s population. Morocco maintains a large military presence in Western Sahara and has encouraged its citizens to settle there, offering bonuses, pay raises, and food subsidies to civil servants and a tax exemption, in order to integrate Western Sahara into the Moroccan Kingdom and, Sahrawis contend, to marginalize the native population.

    Western Saharan Sahrawis have been migrating to Europe, principally to former colonial ruler Spain, since the 1950s. Many who moved to refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, also have migrated to Spain and Italy, usually alternating between living in cities abroad with periods back at the camps. The Polisario claims that the population of the Tindouf camps is about 155,000, but this figure may include thousands of Arabs and Tuaregs from neighboring countries. Because international organizations have been unable to conduct an independent census in Tindouf, the UNHCR bases its aid on a figure of 90,000 refugees. Western Saharan coastal towns emerged as key migration transit points (for reaching Spain’s Canary Islands) in the mid-1990s, when Spain’s and Italy’s tightening of visa restrictions and EU pressure on Morocco and other North African countries to control illegal migration pushed sub-Saharan African migrants to shift their routes to the south.

    Age structure field listing
    0-14 years: 36.93% (male 115,703 /female 113,121)
    15-24 years: 19.49% (male 60,793 /female 59,948)
    25-54 years: 34.52% (male 105,420 /female 108,462)
    55-64 years: 5.11% (male 14,773 /female 16,880)
    65 years and over: 3.95% (male 10,787 /female 13,664) (2018 est.)
    population pyramid: population pyramid
    Dependency ratios field listing
    total dependency ratio: 45 (2015 est.)
    youth dependency ratio: 41.4 (2015 est.)
    elderly dependency ratio: 3.7 (2015 est.)
    potential support ratio: 27.1 (2015 est.)
    Median age field listing
    total: 21.5 years
    male: 21 years
    female: 21.9 years (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 181
    Population growth rate field listing
    2.64% (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 17
    Birth rate field listing
    28.9 births/1,000 population (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 41
    Death rate field listing
    7.9 deaths/1,000 population (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 95
    Population distribution field listing
    most of the population lives in the two-thirds of the area west of the berm (Moroccan-occupied) that divides the territory; about 40% of that populace resides in Laayoune
    Urbanization field listing
    urban population: 86.7% of total population (2018)
    rate of urbanization: 2.61% annual rate of change (2015-20 est.)
    Major urban areas - population field listing
    232,000 Laayoune (2018)
    Sex ratio field listing
    at birth: 1.03 male(s)/female (2017 est.)
    0-14 years: 1.02 male(s)/female (2017 est.)
    15-24 years: 1.01 male(s)/female (2017 est.)
    25-54 years: 0.97 male(s)/female (2017 est.)
    55-64 years: 0.87 male(s)/female (2017 est.)
    65 years and over: 0.78 male(s)/female (2017 est.)
    total population: 0.99 male(s)/female (2017 est.)
    Infant mortality rate field listing
    total: 50.5 deaths/1,000 live births (2018 est.)
    male: 55.3 deaths/1,000 live births (2018 est.)
    female: 45.6 deaths/1,000 live births (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 27
    Life expectancy at birth field listing
    total population: 63.8 years (2018 est.)
    male: 61.4 years (2018 est.)
    female: 66.2 years (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 195
    Total fertility rate field listing
    3.79 children born/woman (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 40
    Sanitation facility access field listing
    HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate field listing
    NA
    HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS field listing
    NA
    HIV/AIDS - deaths field listing
    NA
  • Government :: Western Sahara
  • Country name field listing
    conventional long form: none
    conventional short form: Western Sahara
    former: Rio de Oro, Saguia el Hamra, Spanish Sahara
    etymology: self-descriptive name specifying the territory's western location on the African continent's vast desert
    Government type field listing
    legal status of territory and issue of sovereignty unresolved - territory contested by Morocco and Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), which in February 1976 formally proclaimed a government-in-exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), near Tindouf, Algeria, was led by President Mohamed ABDELAZIZ until his death in May 2016; current President Brahim GHALI elected in July 2016; territory partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania in April 1976 when Spain withdrew, with Morocco acquiring northern two-thirds; Mauritania, under pressure from Polisario guerrillas, abandoned all claims to its portion in August 1979; Morocco moved to occupy that sector shortly thereafter and has since asserted administrative control; the Polisario's government-in-exile was seated as an Organization of African Unity (OAU) member in 1984 - Morocco between 1980 and 1987 built a fortified sand berm delineating the roughly 75% of Western Sahara west of the barrier that currently is controlled by Morocco; guerrilla activities continued sporadically until a UN-monitored cease-fire was implemented on 6 September 1991 (Security Council Resolution 690) by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)
    Capital field listing
    time difference: UTC 0 (5 hours ahead of Washington, DC, during Standard Time)
    daylight saving time: +1hr, begins last Sunday in March; ends last Sunday in October
    Administrative divisions field listing
    none officially; the territory west of the Moroccan berm falls under de facto Moroccan control; Morocco claims the territory of Western Sahara, the political status of which is considered undetermined by the US Government; portions of the regions Guelmim-Es Smara and Laayoune-Boujdour-Sakia El Hamra, as claimed by Morocco, lie within Western Sahara; Morocco also claims Oued Eddahab-Lagouira, another region that falls entirely within Western Sahara
    Suffrage field listing
    none; (residents of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara participate in Moroccan elections)
    Executive branch field listing
    none
    International organization participation field listing
    AU, CAN (observer), WFTU (NGOs)
    Diplomatic representation in the US field listing
    none
    Diplomatic representation from the US field listing
    none
  • Economy :: Western Sahara
  • Economy - overview field listing

    Western Sahara has a small market-based economy whose main industries are fishing, phosphate mining, tourism, and pastoral nomadism. The territory's arid desert climate makes sedentary agriculture difficult, and much of its food is imported. The Moroccan Government administers Western Sahara's economy and is a key source of employment, infrastructure development, and social spending in the territory.

    Western Sahara's unresolved legal status makes the exploitation of its natural resources a contentious issue between Morocco and the Polisario. Morocco and the EU in December 2013 finalized a four-year agreement allowing European vessels to fish off the coast of Morocco, including disputed waters off the coast of Western Sahara. As of April 2018, Moroccan and EU authorities were negotiating an amendment to renew the agreement.

    Oil has never been found in Western Sahara in commercially significant quantities, but Morocco and the Polisario have quarreled over rights to authorize and benefit from oil exploration in the territory. Western Sahara's main long-term economic challenge is the development of a more diverse set of industries capable of providing greater employment and income to the territory. However, following King MOHAMMED VI’s November 2015 visit to Western Sahara, the Government of Morocco announced a series of investments aimed at spurring economic activity in the region, while the General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises announced a $609 million investment initiative in the region in March 2015.

    GDP (purchasing power parity) field listing
    $906.5 million (2007 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 205
    GDP (official exchange rate) field listing
    NA
    GDP - real growth rate field listing

    NA

    GDP - per capita (PPP) field listing
    $2,500 (2007 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 198
    GDP - composition, by sector of origin field listing
    agriculture: NA (2007 est.)
    industry: NA (2007 est.)
    services: 40% (2007 est.)
    Agriculture - products field listing
    fruits and vegetables (grown in the few oases); camels, sheep, goats (kept by nomads); fish
    Industries field listing
    phosphate mining, handicrafts
    Industrial production growth rate field listing
    NA
    Labor force field listing
    144,000 (2010 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 178
    Labor force - by occupation field listing
    agriculture: 50% (2005 est.)
    industry and services: 50% (2005 est.)
    Unemployment rate field listing

    NA

    Population below poverty line field listing
    NA
    Household income or consumption by percentage share field listing
    lowest 10%: NA
    highest 10%: NA
    Budget field listing
    revenues: NA
    expenditures: NA
    Taxes and other revenues field listing
    NA
    Budget surplus (+) or deficit (-) field listing
    NA
    Fiscal year field listing
    calendar year
    Inflation rate (consumer prices) field listing

    NA

    Exports field listing

    NA

    Exports - commodities field listing
    phosphates 62% (2012 est.)
    Imports field listing

    NA

    Imports - commodities field listing
    fuel for fishing fleet, foodstuffs
    Debt - external field listing

    NA

    Exchange rates field listing
    Moroccan dirhams (MAD) per US dollar -
    9.639 (2017 est.)
    9.7351 (2016 est.)
    9.7351 (2015)
    9.7351 (2014 est.)
    8.3798 (2013 est.)
  • Energy :: Western Sahara
  • Electricity - production field listing
    NA
    Electricity - consumption field listing
    0 kWh (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 219
    Electricity - exports field listing
    0 kWh (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 217
    Electricity - imports field listing
    0 kWh (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 218
    Electricity - installed generating capacity field listing
    58,000 kW (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 188
    Electricity - from fossil fuels field listing
    100% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 21
    Electricity - from nuclear fuels field listing
    0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 211
    Electricity - from hydroelectric plants field listing
    0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 213
    Electricity - from other renewable sources field listing
    0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 213
    Crude oil - production field listing
    0 bbl/day (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 214
    Crude oil - exports field listing
    0 bbl/day (2014 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 214
    Crude oil - imports field listing
    0 bbl/day (2014 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 214
    Crude oil - proved reserves field listing
    0 bbl (1 January 2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 214
    Refined petroleum products - production field listing
    0 bbl/day (2014 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 215
    Refined petroleum products - consumption field listing
    1,700 bbl/day (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 194
    Refined petroleum products - exports field listing
    0 bbl/day (2014 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 215
    Refined petroleum products - imports field listing
    1,702 bbl/day (2014 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 188
    Natural gas - production field listing
    0 cu m (2013 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 214
    Natural gas - consumption field listing
    0 cu m (2013 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 213
    Natural gas - exports field listing
    0 cu m (2013 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 213
    Natural gas - imports field listing
    0 cu m (2013 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 212
    Natural gas - proved reserves field listing
    0 cu m (1 January 2014 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 209
    Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy field listing
    300,000 Mt (2013 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 197
  • Communications :: Western Sahara
  • Telephone system field listing
    general assessment: sparse and limited system (2015)
    international: country code - 212; tied into Morocco's system by microwave radio relay, tropospheric scatter, and satellite; satellite earth stations - 2 Intelsat (Atlantic Ocean) linked to Rabat, Morocco (2015)
    Broadcast media field listing
    Morocco's state-owned broadcaster, Radio-Television Marocaine (RTM), operates a radio service from Laayoune and relays TV service; a Polisario-backed radio station also broadcasts (2008)
    Internet country code field listing
    .eh
  • Transportation :: Western Sahara
  • Airports field listing
    6 (2013)
    country comparison to the world: 178
    Airports - with paved runways field listing
    total: 3 (2013)
    2,438 to 3,047 m: 3 (2013)
    Airports - with unpaved runways field listing
    total: 3 (2013)
    1,524 to 2,437 m: 1 (2013)
    914 to 1,523 m: 1 (2013)
    under 914 m: 1 (2013)
    Ports and terminals field listing
    major seaport(s): Ad Dakhla, Laayoune (El Aaiun)
  • Transnational Issues :: Western Sahara
  • Disputes - international field listing
    no country has recognized Morocco’s claim to the Western Saharaseveral states have extended diplomatic relations to the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" represented by the Polisario Front in exile in Algeriamore than 100,000 Sahrawi refugees continue to be sheltered in camps in Tindouf, Algeria, which has hosted Sahrawi refugees since the 1980s