The sovereignty of the Western Sahara remains the subject of a dispute between the Government of Morocco and the Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro), an organization seeking independence for the region. The Moroccan Government sent troops and settlers into the northern two-thirds of the Western Sahara after Spain withdrew from the area in 1975, and extended its administration over the southern province of Oued Ed-Dahab after Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979. The Moroccan Government has undertaken a sizable economic development program in the Western Sahara as part of its long-term efforts to strengthen Moroccan claims to the territory, although incomes and standards of living are substantially below Moroccan levels. The population of the territory is an estimated 400,000.
The Western Sahara has never been a nation in the modern sense of the word. Phoenician colonies established or reinforced by Hanno the Navigator have vanished with virtually no trace, and the increasing desertification of the Sahara, before the camel was introduced in north Africa at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD, made sporadic contact with the outside world almost impossible. The camel revolution made this region one of the main routes of transport of the world. Salt and gold were transported between North Africa and West Africa.
Islam arrived in the 8th century and was an immediate success. Al-Murabitun, also known as the Almoravides, were a group of strict Koranic interpreters from this region who ended up controlling all of North Africa.
In 1884, Spain claimed a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cap Blanc. The area was later extended. In 1958 Spain joined the previously separate districts of Saguia el-Hamra (in the north) and Río de Oro (in the south) to form the province of Spanish Sahara.
In 1975, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion on the status of the Western Sahara. The Court held that while some of the region's tribes had historical ties to Morocco, the ties were insufficient to establish "any tie of territorial sovereignty" between the Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco. The Court added that it had not found "legal ties" that might affect the applicable U.N. General Assembly resolution regarding the decolonization of the territory, and, in particular, the principle of self-determination for its people. Most Sahrawis (as the majority of persons living in the territory are called) live in the area controlled by Morocco, but there is a sizable refugee population near the border with Morocco in Algeria, and, to a lesser extent, in Mauritania. The majority of the Sahrawi population lives within the area delineated by a Moroccan-constructed berm, which encloses most of the territory.
On November 6, 1975 the so-called Green March into Western Sahara began when 300,000 unarmed Moroccans converged on the southern city of Tarfaya and waited for a signal from King Hassan II of Morocco to cross into Western Sahara. As a result, Spain abandoned Western Sahara on November 14, 1975, repatriating even the Spanish corpses from its cemeteries. Morocco later virtually annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) in 1976, and the rest of the territory in 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal.
On February 27, 1976, the Polisario Front formally proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and set up a government in exile. A guerrilla war between the Polisario and Morocco ended in a 1991 cease-fire; though the Polisario Front still holds 408 Moroccans as the oldest POWs in the world. Several POW's that have been released have been turned away by the Moroccan government and denied their citizenship.
The 1991 peace accords included an agreement on the carrying out of a referendum among the indigenous population. The referendum was planned to give the population the option between independence or inclusion to Morocco. The referendum has, however, to this date not been carried out due to the conflict over who is entitled to vote.
Since 1977 the Saharan provinces of Laayoune, Smara, and Boujdour have participated in local elections that are organized and controlled by the Moroccan Government. The southern province of Oued Ed-Dahab has participated in Moroccan-controlled elections since 1983. Sahrawis whose political views are aligned with the Moroccan Government fill all the seats allotted to the Western Sahara in the Moroccan Parliament.
The civilian population living in the Western Sahara under Moroccan administration is subject to Moroccan law. U.N. observers and foreign human rights groups maintain that Sahrawis have difficulty obtaining Moroccan passports, that the Government monitors the political views of Sahrawis more closely than those of Moroccan citizens, and that the police and paramilitary authorities react especially harshly against those suspected of supporting independence and the Polisario. The Moroccan Government limits access to the territory, and international human rights organizations and impartial journalists sometimes have experienced difficulty in securing admission.
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. All trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan Government. Moroccan energy interests in 2001 signed contracts to explore for oil off the coast of Western Sahara, which has angered the Polisario. Incomes and standards of living in Western Sahara are substantially below the Moroccan level.
* This article is based on public domain text from http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/nea/8281.htm.
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