Western Sahara is located in North Africa. Unrecognized
territory, part of the country de facto independent. Most of the
territory is occupied by Morocco, which considers Western Sahara its
region under the name of the Southern Provinces.
The country is located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, in the north it borders on Morocco, in the northeast on Algeria, in the south and east on Mauritania.
Russia recognizes the independence of Western Sahara.
The country is divided by a
complex of border defense structures, called the Moroccan Wall, into
two large areas:
Territory occupied by Morocco
Territory controlled by the Polisario Front - Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)
After Spain gave up the colony in 1975, a division was planned: the
north was to be connected to Morocco and the south to Mauritania. The
left-wing Polisario Liberation Front fought for Western Sahara's
independence. Mauritania finally renounced its part, whereupon Morocco
partially occupied this part as well.
Today more than two thirds of the area of Morocco are occupied. All major cities in the country belong to this part. The remaining third, in the extremely sparsely populated east and south-east, is controlled by the Polisario, who have proclaimed their own state called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. A referendum on the future of Western Sahara, which the UN has been calling for for a long time, has been repeatedly postponed and has since been abandoned by Morocco altogether.
Between the two zones is the more than 2500-kilometer-long "Moroccan Wall" (English berm), a system created by the Moroccan military of about three meters high sand walls, walls, piled up rubble, barbed wire and minefields that prevented Polisario fighters from entering to prevent the Moroccan controlled zone. Danger to life here! The Moroccan occupied part should be more interesting for tourists anyway.
After the USA pushed ahead in the final days of Donald Trump's term in office, a number of countries have now followed suit and have recognized Morocco's claim to the territory under international law. Since March 2022, this has also included the former colonial power Spain. The American-oriented German Foreign Minister Baerbock swung to this position during a visit to Rabat in August 2022, even if court judgments by the ECJ from 2012 still stand in the way of official approval.
Overland connections are currently only available from Morocco and an
open border crossing from Mauritania at La Gouira, north of Nouadhibou.
When crossing the border with Mauritania, you pass a few kilometers wide
strip that is not under Moroccan control. However, this area looks more
like a no man's land with many broken cars, and there is no
administrative presence there either, apart from that of Morocco and
Mauritania (2019). The directions given under "By bike" along the
coastal road through Western Sahara are also useful for motorists.
There are no border formalities at the border with Morocco, as the territory of Morocco is considered an integral part of its territory.
There are two scheduled airports: El Aaiun Hassan I Airport (IATA: EUN) in the northwest and Dakhla Airport (IATA: VIL) further south. Both are accessible from several Moroccan airports as well as from Gran Canaria. Airlines represented are Royal Air Maroc (EUN, VIL) and BinterCanarias (EUN only).
Buses run regularly from Morocco, including Agadir and Casablanca, to El Aaiún. Since spring 2018 there are also buses from Ad-Dakhla south to the Mauritian border.
In the street
The distance from Agadir to El Aaiún is about 500 kilometers. The route Casablanca–El Aaiún (over 1000 km; on road signs as Laayune) is theoretically possible on a long day, but an overnight stay is recommended.
Route description for crossing the Western Sahara. See also the description of the border crossing to Mauritania, which is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The main traffic artery near the coast, National Road 1 (RN1), is already largely a four-lane expressway when you come from Agadir to El Aaiún. Some gaps between Guelmin and Tan-Tan are already under construction, and everything should be finished by 2023 at the latest.
Gasoline, the price of which was state-controlled until 2015, is almost ten percent cheaper in Western Sahara than in Morocco. In August 2022, a liter in Moroccan cities cost about Dh 15.60, diesel Dh 14.30, just over the district border east of Tarfaya less. An exception is the 1 "last gas station before Mauritania" (24° 40′ 0″ N 14° 52′ 19″ W) a good 30 km before the border (ط و 1، واد لكراع), here as well as at the border himself, asks for more. In any case, self-drivers should also fill up the reserve canisters, since there was a shortage of petrol and higher prices in the neighboring country to the south. Otherwise, it makes sense to stock up in Bir Gandúz (22° 3′ 9″ N 16° 45′ 2″ W) (بئر كندوز = Bir Gandús), where Motel Barbas offers decent accommodation.
The ferry from the Canary Islands has long been discontinued.
The Moroccan bus network allows trips to Dakhla without any problems.
The national roads are in fair condition, which is not necessarily the case for local vehicles. You should only drive on desert slopes in daylight and preferably not alone. A navigation device and an adequate supply of water, food, fuel and spare parts are essential for survival. A competent guide does no harm on desert tours either.
Police checks of passengers on buses are more frequent in Western Sahara than in Morocco. While primarily locals are checked in Morocco, the papers of foreign travelers are specifically checked during these checks.
In principle, it is possible to cross Western Sahara.
The official language is Arabic, with the Hassānīya dialect being the most common (which is also spoken in Mauritania and northern Mali). Since there are many immigrants from Morocco as a result of the occupation, the Moroccan dialect is also often used. Some business people know some French. As a result of the colonial era, you can still sometimes see signs in Spanish and some older Sahrawis know some Spanish. Without knowledge of Arabic, however, you will often only be able to communicate with your hands and feet.
In the Moroccan occupied part the Moroccan Dirham is used to pay. The currency of the eastern part controlled by the Polisario is the Saharawi peseta, which is pegged to the euro at a rate of 1:166.39. A small amount of the Mauritanian ouguiya circulates in the south of the territory.
There are many landmines on the border
between the Moroccan-occupied and the Polisario-held territory, the
Moroccan Wall. The border region with Mauritania is no longer mined.
The Austrian Foreign Ministry warns against leaving the main El Aaiún-Dakhla-Mauritanian border route. The border can only be crossed at the Guerguarat/Nouadhibou border crossing (border post PK 55).
At every exit there is a police station where you have to stop briefly. Depending on the form of the day, they are waved through or the papers, especially from foreigners, are photographed with the entry stamp (more often at night). Sometimes the luggage is also searched.
Risk of heat stroke.
part of the country is now so pacified that you can travel here
normally, despite the relevant warnings from various foreign ministries.
For legal reasons, consular support from the German Embassy in Rabat is not possible for travelers to Western Sahara. For practical reasons, consular support from the Austrian embassy in Rabat is difficult in Western Sahara.
The history of Western Sahara can be traced back to the 5th century
BC. e., when the Carthaginian traveler Hanno visited it.
The modern history of Western Sahara dates back to nomadic tribes such as the Sanhaji, who lived in the Berber sphere of influence. In the 8th century, these tribes adopted Islam and then the Arabic language.
From the 11th to the 19th centuries, Western Sahara was the link between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. In the middle of the 11th century, the Sanhaji entered into an alliance with the Lemtuns and founded the Almoravid dynasty. The Almoravids expanded their state to almost the entire territory of modern Morocco, Tlemcen and the Iberian Peninsula in the north, the territory of Mauritania, Senegal and Mali in the south, coming into contact with the Empire of Ghana. By the 16th century, the Moroccan Saadian dynasty had conquered the Songhai Empire, located along the Niger River. The main routes of the Trans-Saharan trade passed through Western Sahara, connecting Timbuktu (Mali) and Marrakech (Morocco). The slave trade developed in the 17th and 18th centuries.
At the end of the 19th century, during the colonial division of Africa, the region ceded to Spain, which was confirmed at the Berlin Conference in 1884. After this, Western Sahara was known as the "Spanish Sahara". Since gaining independence in 1956, Morocco has continuously asserted territorial claims over Western Sahara. In 1958, the Spanish Sahara received the status of a Spanish province. In 1967, the Spanish authorities created a local governing body - the General Assembly of Western Sahara (Jamaa). On November 6, 1975, Morocco organized the so-called Green March, a mass demonstration of 350 thousand unarmed people from all regions of Morocco that entered Western Sahara. On November 18, Spain withdrew its administration and signed the Madrid Accords, after which Morocco and Mauritania divided the territory between themselves. Mauritania later withdrew its troops from Western Sahara and renounced its territorial claims.
On February 27, 1976, the Polisario Front, waging a guerrilla war against Moroccan troops with Algerian support, declared Western Sahara an independent state called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Currently, the independence of the SADR is recognized by 60 UN member states. The Republic has been a member of the African Union (formerly the Organization of African Unity) since 1984.
On April 29, 1991, in accordance with the “proposals of the UN Secretary-General for a settlement”, to which Morocco and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Seguiet el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) gave their consent on August 30, 1988 Security Council of the Organization The United Nations adopted Resolution 690 (1991). Based on this resolution, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara was created.
The settlement plan proposed by the Secretary-General and approved by the Security Council provided for a transition period during which the Special Representative of the Secretary-General would bear full responsibility for all issues related to the referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and joining Morocco. It was envisaged that the Special Representative would be assisted in carrying out his tasks by his deputy and a composite team of United Nations civilian, military and civilian police personnel called the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINRS).
The referendum has not yet taken place due to disagreements between the parties on the issue of agreeing on the lists of persons entitled to vote in the referendum. In this regard, the Security Council annually, by its decision, extends the work of MINURSO for another year.
Thus, Western Sahara remains a disputed territory between Morocco, which administers the territory, and the Polisario Front, which represents the interests of the indigenous population of Western Sahara and advocates for its independence. Numerous attempts to establish a peace process and resolve the conflict, the most recent of which were the 2007-2008 Manhesset Negotiations, have so far only led to a ceasefire, but not to a political settlement of the situation.
In 2010-2011, protests took place among the population against Moroccan policies in the country. Noted scholars Noam Chomsky and Bernabe Lopez García noted these events as the starting point of unrest, protests and uprisings in the Arab world in 2010-2011.
The desire to open a consular office in Dakhla was also announced in the United States, where in 2020 President Trump signed a declaration recognizing the kingdom’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
The country is divided into two historical regions: Seguiet el Hamra
(in the north) and Rio de Oro (in the south). The Atlantic coast of
Western Sahara is occupied by an accumulative coastal lowland, turning
in the east into elevated basement plains with remnant massifs. The
spurs of the stepped Draa plateau, up to 823 m high, extend to the
northeast. Fluttering sands and dunes occupy significant areas in
Western Sahara. The most important mineral resources are phosphorites,
as well as iron ores and offshore oil.
The climate is tropical desert, hot in the interior (25-30 °C) and milder on the coast due to the influence of the cold Canary Current (17-20 °C). Episodic precipitation occurs in spring and autumn (50-200 mm per year). Strong winds regularly raise dust storms. There are no permanent rivers in Western Sahara, but temporary watercourses are numerous during the rainy season (Zabalera, Sagia el-Hamra, El Fush).
The poor, sparse vegetation cover is represented by desert vegetation - halophytes (solyanka, sarcazan and others) and creeping grasses, and on the coast - milkweed. In the oases and lower reaches of the ouedas, occupying 3.8% of the territory, palm trees and acacias grow, and grain crops (wheat, millet, barley), fruits, vegetables, and dates are grown. Nomadic tribes raise over 300 thousand heads of livestock (goats, sheep, camels), which have almost reduced the already meager vegetation to nothing, as a result of which several species of gazelles, addax antelope and other wild animals have disappeared. Among the ungulates there are also the Dorcas gazelle, and among the predators - the jackal, hyena, fennec fox and others. On the coast there are large colonies of migratory waders and resting places for pink flamingos. About 5 thousand tons of fish are caught annually in coastal waters.
The population was estimated to be 373,008 in July 2005, 405,210 in
2010, and 586,000 in 2015; These are mainly Arabs and Arabized Berbers,
many of them lead a nomadic lifestyle. At the same time, it is estimated
that about 40 thousand live in the Free Zone and about 100 thousand
people live in refugee camps in Algeria.
There are 39.54 births and 11.49 deaths per 1000 people annually, and 69.66 deaths per 1000 newborns. The average life expectancy for men is 52 years, for women - 56.73 years. The average birth rate per woman is 4.3 children. Children under 14 years old make up 44.9% of the total population, adults from 15 to 64 years old: 52.8% and elderly over 65 years old only 2.3%.
Almost 100% of the population professes Islam; in 1975, over 20,000 Catholics lived in the region, but by 2007, as a result of persecution and emigration, approximately 100 people remained.
The majority of the population speaks the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. Many also speak Spanish and use it as an international language.
Large parts of the country are still economically undeveloped and the
road network is thin. The main economic sectors are fishing, the mining
of mineral resources (especially phosphate, the deposit is considered
one of the largest in the world) and the cultivation of date palms
(oasis economy). The west coast is considered to have great potential
for generating wind energy. The entire economy of the western parts of
the former Spanish colony is heavily subsidized with tax revenues from
Morocco and is being expanded significantly as part of the settlement by
Moroccans, while the unoccupied eastern part and the refugee camps in
Algeria are largely dependent on international support.
Of particular importance is the phosphate opencast mine at Bou Craa, which is connected to the port of El Aaiún with the longest conveyor belt in the world. Before the ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the conveyor belt was often destroyed by Polisario Front fighters.
Morocco is increasingly opening up Western Sahara for tourism. The beaches near Dakhla in particular are already beginning to be used for tourism. The tourist infrastructure is still poorly developed, although there are now direct Spanish flights from the neighboring Canary Islands. Package tourism hardly takes place.