Located on the northwest coast of Africa, Western Sahara is a disputed territory sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania. It is mostly desert and is sparsely populated, home to only around 500, 000 people over a vast 252, 000 square kilometers. The combination of geographical location, Spanish roots, and a long-term territorial dispute between Morocco and the area’s indigenous Saharawi people means the sovereign status of this country is fought over at its worst, and undefined at its best.
Spanish and Scottish merchants first arrived to the area in the mid 19th century and the Spanish government claimed protective rights over the coastal zone. The French briefly hindered further land ownership, with claims to areas near Mauritania. Later in 1916, and successively in 1920 and 1934, Spain succeeded in occupying the interior of the Western Sahara landmass. All was not settled however, and Spanish troops were called into action when Morocco reached independence and came in to claim the territory.
In 1957 Morocco claimed the area, but were repelled by the Spanish troops who created a new province known as Spanish Sahara in 1958. Sovereignty was further complicated in 1960, when the newly independent Mauritania laid claim to the land. When phosphate deposits were later discovered in the region, the territory suddenly became much more economically valuable for its owners. Amidst economic and social change, drought and desertification, the struggles continued, leading to the indigenous Saharawi to create a liberation front in 1975, known as the Polisario Front.
Eventually, due to issues within their own country, Spain declared they would withdraw from the area and partition the Spanish Sahara region between the two countries of Morocco and Mauritania.
So Is Western Sahara a Country?
The short answer is no, not officially.
With Spain out of the picture, Morocco, Mauritania, and the Polisario Front would continue to fight for the territory. Eventually, Mauritania bowed out and reached a peace agreement with the Polisario Front. Morocco annexed Mauritania’s portion of Western Sahara before agreeing to a cease-fire with the Polisario Front, enacted in 1991.
Today, however, the land remains in contention, and the area still does not have independent sovereign status.
With the continuous political unrest, lack of UN recognition status, and ongoing disputes between geographical unions, Western Sahara is not considered a country. Perhaps, with time and improvement in these areas, that may change, but until there are clear differences within these capacities, Western Sahara will remain a divided region.
Interested in Africa? Make sure to check out these other blog posts about the continent.