Western Sahara

June 15, 2012, 8:13 am
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

Astronaur photograph of the coast of Western Sahara showing Cape Barbas and the Gulf of Cintra, Source: NASA

Western Sahara is a region containing about a half-a-million people in northern-Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania to the south and Morocco to the north. It is being administered by Morocco which claims it and thus, its sovereignty is in dispute.

It is mostly low, flat desert with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains in south and northeast.

The waters off the coast are particularly rich fishing areas

Western Sahara's environmental issues include sparse water and lack of arable land.

It is susceptible to the hot, dry, dust/sand-laden sirocco wind which can occur during winter and spring; and also, widespread harmattan haze which exists 60% of time, often severely restricting visibility

Morocco virtually annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) in 1976, and claimed the rest of the territory in 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal.

A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front contesting Rabat's sovereignty ended in a 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire. A UN-organized referendum on the territory's final status has been repeatedly postponed.

The UN since 2007 has sponsored intermittent talks between representatives of the Government of Morocco and the Polisario Front to negotiate the status of Western Sahara.

Morocco has put forward an autonomy proposal for the territory, which would allow for some local administration while maintaining Moroccan sovereignty.

The Polisario, with Algeria's support, demands a popular referendum that includes the option of independence.

Ethnic tensions in Western Sahara occasionally erupt into violence requiring a Moroccan security force response.


Location: Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco

Geographic Coordinates: 24 30 N, 13 00 W

Area: 266,000 km2 (266,000 km2 land and 0 km2 water)

Land Boundaries: 2,046 km. Border countries: Algeria 42 km, Mauritania 1,561 km, Morocco 443 km

Coastline: 1,110 km

Maritime Claims: contingent upon resolution of sovereignty issue

Natural Hazards: hot, dry, dust/sand-laden sirocco wind can occur during winter and spring; widespread harmattan haze exists 60% of time, often severely restricting visibility

Terrain: Mostly low, flat desert with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains in south and northeast. Its lowest point is Sebjet Tah (-55 metres) and its highest point is an unnamed elevation (805 metres).

Climate: Hot, dry desert; rain is rare; cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew

Topography of Western Sahara. Source: Wikemedia Commons



Satellite view of Western Sahara. Source: The Map Library.

Ecology and Biodiversity

1. Mediterranean acacia-argania dry woodlands and succulent thickets

2. Atlantic coastal desert

3. North Saharan steppe and woodlands

4. Saharan halophytes

Map source: World Wildlife Fund

People and Society

Population: 522,928 (July 2012 est.). Note: estimate is based on projections by age, sex, fertility, mortality, and migration; fertility and mortality are based on data from neighboring countries

Ethnic Groups: Arab, Berber

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 38.9% (male 99,797/female 97,700)
15-64 years: 57.5% (male 143,808/female 147,823)
65 years and over: 3.6% (male 7,918/female 10,114) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 3.097% (2011 est.)

Birth Rate: 32.1 births/1,000 population (2011 est.)

Death Rate: 8.96 deaths/1,000 population (July 2011 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 61.13 years

Total Fertility Rate: 4.3 children born/woman (2011 est.)

Languages: Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic

Urbanization: 82% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 3.5% (2010-15 est.)


Government Type: 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), led by President Mohamed Abdelaziz; territory partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania in April 1976, 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; 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 or MINURSO

Suffrage: none; a UN-sponsored voter identification campaign not yet completed


Agricultural Products: fruits and vegetables (grown in the few oases); camels, sheep, goats (kept by nomads); fish


Natural Resources: phosphates, iron ore.

Land Use:

arable land: 0.02%
permanent crops: 0%
other: 99.98% (2005)

Rain is so rare in Western Sahara that crops occupy less than one half of one percent of this hyper-arid country’s land area, and citizens must import most of their food. Phosphate deposits are one of Western Sahara’s few natural resources. At the Bou Craa phosphate mine, 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) from the coastal city of El Aaiún, abundant, pure phosphate deposits lie near the surface.

These true-color satellite images show the expansion of the Bou Craa mine toward the end of the twentieth century. Landsat 7’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) instrument acquired the top image on January 16, 2000. Landsat 5’s Thematic Mapper (TM) instrument acquired the bottom image on January 20, 1987. Mining operations grew primarily at the southern end of the mine, with a network of rectangles showing where rock had been overturned. By 2000, mining operations covered more than 1,225 hectares (roughly 3,000 acres). In 2001, this mine produced some 1.5 million metric tons of phosphate.

In both images, a conspicuous straight line runs from the center of the mining operations toward the northwest. This is a conveyor belt that connects Bou Craa with El Aaiún, and it can carry 2,000 metric tons of rock per hour. As of 2008, this conveyor belt system was the world’s longest.

Phosphorous is critical to the survival of plants and animals. In the human body, phosphorus helps to shape DNA and strengthen teeth, among many other functions. In agriculture, phosphorus acts as fertilizer to improve crop yield. Because phosphorus cannot be artificially produced, it must be mined from phosphorus-rich compounds, or phosphates. Although this region’s phosphate resources were discovered in 1947, phosphate mining did not start until the 1960s. The Bou Craa mining operation began growing steadily in 1974.

Source: NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Michon Scott.


International Disputes: Morocco claims and administers Western Sahara, whose sovereignty remains unresolved; UN-administered cease-fire has remained in effect since September 1991, administered by the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), but attempts to hold a referendum have failed and parties thus far have rejected all brokered proposals; several states have extended diplomatic relations to the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" represented by the Polisario Front in exile in Algeria, while others recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara; most of the approximately 102,000 Sahrawi refugees are sheltered in camps in Tindouf, Algeria

Dust plumes blew across the western Sahara Desert on January 18, 2012. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite took this picture the same day.

Arising from discrete source points, the dust blows from northeast to southwest. Sand seas straddle the Mauritania-Algeria border, and many of the dust plumes arise in that region. In the southwest, over Mauritania, the plumes coalesce into a large mass of dust spanning more than 200 kilometers. Thinner plumes blow westward over Western Sahara toward the Atlantic coast.

Source: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Michon Scott.


Western Sahara depends on pastoral nomadism, fishing, and phosphate mining as the principal sources of income for the population. The territory lacks sufficient rainfall for sustainable agricultural production, and most of the food for the urban population must be imported. Incomes in Western Sahara are substantially below the Moroccan level. The Moroccan Government controls all trade and other economic activities in Western Sahara. Morocco and the EU signed a four-year agreement in July 2006 allowing European vessels to fish off the coast of Morocco, including the disputed waters off the coast of Western Sahara. Moroccan energy interests in 2001 signed contracts to explore for oil off the coast of Western Sahara, which has angered the Polisario. However, in 2006 the Polisario awarded similar exploration licenses in the disputed territory, which would come into force if Morocco and the Polisario resolve their dispute over Western Sahara.

GDP (Purchasing Power Parity): $906.5 million (2007 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $2,500 (2007 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: NA%
industry: NA%
services: 40% (2007 est.)

Industries: phosphate mining, handicrafts

Exports: phosphates 62%

Export Partners: Morocco claims and administers Western Sahara, so trade partners are included in overall Moroccan accounts (2006)

Imports: fuel for fishing fleet, foodstuffs

Import Partners: Morocco claims and administers Western Sahara, so trade partners are included in overall Moroccan accounts (2006)

Economic Aid Recipient: NA%

Currency: Moroccan dirham (MAD)

Ports and Terminals: Ad Dakhla, Cabo Bojador, Laayoune (El Aaiun)



Administration, N., Agency, C., & Fund, W. (2012). Western Sahara. Retrieved from


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