Western Sahara

map (opens in new window)


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


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

Geographic coordinates:

24 30 N, 13 00 W


total: 266,000 sq km
land: 266,000 sq km
water: 0 sq km

Land boundaries:

total: 2,046 km
border countries: Algeria 42 km, Mauritania 1,561 km, Morocco 443 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

Elevation extremes:

lowest point: Sebjet Tah -55 m
highest point: unnamed location 463 m

Natural resources:

phosphates, iron ore

Land use:

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

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:

sparse water and lack of arable land

Geography - note:

the waters off the coast are particularly rich fishing areas


273,008 (July 2006 est.)

Major infectious diseases:

degree of risk: intermediate
food or waterborne diseases: bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever
vectorborne diseases: may be a significant risk in some locations during the transmission season (typically April through November) (2005)


noun: Sahrawi(s), Sahraoui(s)
adjective: Sahrawi, Sahrawian, Sahraouian

Ethnic groups:

Arab, Berber




Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic

Country name:

conventional long form: none
conventional short form: Western Sahara
former: Spanish Sahara

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 6 September 1991



Administrative divisions:

none (under de facto control of Morocco)


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

Economy - overview:

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.

GDP - composition by sector:

agriculture: NA%
industry: NA%
services: 40%

Labor force:


Labor force - by occupation:

agriculture: 50%
industry and services: 50%

Agriculture - products:

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


phosphate mining, handicrafts

Electricity - production:

85 million kWh (2003)

Electricity - consumption:

83.7 million kWh (2003)

Oil - consumption:

1,750 bbl/day (2003 est.)

Exports - commodities:

phosphates 62%

Exports - partners:

Morocco claims and administers Western Sahara, so trade partners are included in overall Moroccan accounts (2004)

Imports - commodities:

fuel for fishing fleet, foodstuffs

Imports - partners:

Morocco claims and administers Western Sahara, so trade partners are included in overall Moroccan accounts (2004)

Currency (code):

Moroccan dirham (MAD)

Exchange rates:

Moroccan dirhams per US dollar - 8.865 (2005), 8.868 (2004), 9.5744 (2003), 11.0206 (2002), 11.303 (2001)

Fiscal year:

calendar year

Telephones - main lines in use:

about 2,000 (1999 est.)

Telephones - mobile cellular:

0 (1999)

Telephone system:

general assessment: sparse and limited system
domestic: NA
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

Radio broadcast stations:

AM 2, FM 0, shortwave 0 (1998)

Internet country code:



11 (2005)

Airports - with paved runways:

total: 3
2,438 to 3,047 m: 3 (2005)

Airports - with unpaved runways:

total: 8
1,524 to 2,437 m: 1
914 to 1,523 m: 4
under 914 m: 3 (2005)

Ports and terminals:

Ad Dakhla, Cabo Bojador, Laayoune (El Aaiun)

Disputes - international:

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