EH - Western Sahara (ESH)

Africa :: Western Sahara
  • Introduction :: Western Sahara
  • Background:
    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 on the question of independence 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. The UN revived direct talks about the territory between Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania in December 2018.
  • Geography :: Western Sahara
  • Location:
    Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco
    Geographic coordinates:
    24 30 N, 13 00 W
    Map references:
    total: 266,000 sq km
    land: 266,000 sq km
    water: 0 sq km
    country comparison to the world: 79
    Area - comparative:
    about the size of Colorado
    Land boundaries:
    total: 2,049 km
    border countries (3): Algeria 41 km, Mauritania 1564 km, Morocco 444 km
    1,110 km
    Maritime claims:
    contingent upon resolution of sovereignty issue
    hot, dry desert; rain is rare; cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew
    mostly low, flat desert with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains in south and northeast
    mean elevation: 256 m
    lowest point: Sebjet Tah -55 m
    highest point: unnamed elevation 805 m
    Natural resources:
    phosphates, iron ore
    Land use:
    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:
    0 sq km (2012)
    Population distribution:
    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:
    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:
    desertification; overgrazing; sparse water and lack of arable land
    Geography - note:
    the waters off the coast are particularly rich fishing areas
  • People and Society :: Western Sahara
  • Population:
    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
    noun: Sahrawi(s), Sahraoui(s)
    adjective: Sahrawi, Sahrawian, Sahraouian
    Ethnic groups:
    Arab, Berber
    Standard Arabic, Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Berber, Spanish, French
    Demographic profile:

    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:
    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:
    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:
    total: 21.5 years
    male: 21 years
    female: 21.9 years (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 181
    Population growth rate:
    2.64% (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 17
    Birth rate:
    28.9 births/1,000 population (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 41
    Death rate:
    7.9 deaths/1,000 population (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 95
    Net migration rate:
    5.4 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 23
    Population distribution:
    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
    urban population: 86.7% of total population (2018)
    rate of urbanization: 2.61% annual rate of change (2015-20 est.)
    Major urban areas - population:
    232,000 Laayoune (2018)
    Sex ratio:
    at birth: 1.04 male(s)/female
    0-14 years: 1.02 male(s)/female
    15-24 years: 1.01 male(s)/female
    25-54 years: 0.97 male(s)/female
    55-64 years: 0.88 male(s)/female
    65 years and over: 0.79 male(s)/female
    total population: 0.99 male(s)/female (2018 est.)
    Infant mortality rate:
    total: 50.5 deaths/1,000 live births
    male: 55.3 deaths/1,000 live births
    female: 45.6 deaths/1,000 live births (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 27
    Life expectancy at birth:
    total population: 63.8 years
    male: 61.4 years
    female: 66.2 years (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 195
    Total fertility rate:
    3.79 children born/woman (2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 40
    HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate:
    HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS:
    HIV/AIDS - deaths:
    Education expenditures:
  • Government :: Western Sahara
  • Country name:
    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:
    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, 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)
    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:
    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
    none; (residents of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara participate in Moroccan elections)
    Executive branch:
    International organization participation:
    AU, CAN (observer), WFTU (NGOs)
    Diplomatic representation in the US:
    Diplomatic representation from the US:
  • Economy :: Western Sahara
  • Economy - overview:

    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):
    $906.5 million (2007 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 205
    GDP (official exchange rate):
    GDP - real growth rate:


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


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




    Exports - commodities:
    phosphates 62% (2012 est.)


    Imports - commodities:
    fuel for fishing fleet, foodstuffs
    Debt - external:


    Exchange rates:
    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:
    0 kWh NA (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 220
    Electricity - consumption:
    0 kWh (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 219
    Electricity - exports:
    0 kWh (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 218
    Electricity - imports:
    0 kWh (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 218
    Electricity - installed generating capacity:
    58,000 kW (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 188
    Electricity - from fossil fuels:
    100% of total installed capacity (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 22
    Electricity - from nuclear fuels:
    0% of total installed capacity (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 212
    Electricity - from hydroelectric plants:
    0% of total installed capacity (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 214
    Electricity - from other renewable sources:
    0% of total installed capacity (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 214
    Crude oil - production:
    0 bbl/day (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 215
    Crude oil - exports:
    0 bbl/day (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 216
    Crude oil - imports:
    0 bbl/day (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 216
    Crude oil - proved reserves:
    0 bbl (1 January 2018 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 213
    Refined petroleum products - production:
    0 bbl/day (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 216
    Refined petroleum products - consumption:
    1,700 bbl/day (2016 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 197
    Refined petroleum products - exports:
    0 bbl/day (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 216
    Refined petroleum products - imports:
    1,702 bbl/day (2015 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 193
    Natural gas - production:
    0 cu m (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 215
    Natural gas - consumption:
    0 cu m (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 214
    Natural gas - exports:
    0 cu m (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 213
    Natural gas - imports:
    0 cu m (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 213
    Natural gas - proved reserves:
    0 cu m (1 January 2014 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 208
    Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy:
    268,400 Mt (2017 est.)
    country comparison to the world: 194
  • Communications :: Western Sahara
  • Telephone system:
    general assessment: sparse and limited system
    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
    Broadcast media:
    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:
  • Transportation :: Western Sahara
  • Airports:
    6 (2013)
    country comparison to the world: 178
    Airports - with paved runways:
    total: 3 (2013)
    2,438 to 3,047 m: 3 (2013)
    Airports - with unpaved runways:
    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:
    major seaport(s): Ad Dakhla, Laayoune (El Aaiun)
  • Transnational Issues :: Western Sahara
  • Disputes - international:

    many neighboring states reject Moroccan administration of Western Sahara; several states have extended diplomatic relations to the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" represented by the Polisario Front in exile in Algeria, while others support Morocco’s proposal to grant the territory autonomy as part of Morocco, although no state recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara; an estimated 90,000 Sahrawi refugees continue to be sheltered in camps in Tindouf, Algeria, which has hosted Sahrawi refugees since the 1980s