Western Sahara

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Western Sahara is a disputed 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 the Western Sahara between independence (favored by the Polisario Front) or integration into Morocco. A proposed referendum never took place due to lack of agreement on voter eligibility. The 2,700 km- (1,700 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 80 percent of the territory west of the berm. Local demonstrations criticizing the Moroccan authorities occur regularly, and there are periodic ethnic tensions between the native Sahrawi population and Moroccan immigrants. Morocco maintains a heavy security presence in the territory.



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

Geographic coordinates

24.30° N, 13.00° W

Area 78/257

total: 266,000 sq km

land: 266,000 sq km

water: 0 sq km

Area - comparative

about the size of Colorado

Land boundaries

total: 2,049 km

border countries (3): Algeria 41 km, Mauritania 1,564 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:

elevation extremes:

lowest point: Sebjet Tah -55 m

highest point: unnamed elevation 805 m

Natural resources

phosphates, iron ore

Land use

agricultural land: 18.8%

arable land 0%; permanent crops 0%; permanent pasture 18.8%

forest: 2.7%

other: 78.5% (2011 est.)

Irrigated land


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

People and Society


noun: Sahrawi(s), Sahraoui(s)

adjective: Sahrawi, Sahrawian, Sahraouian

Ethnic groups

Arab, Berber


Standard Arabic (national), Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic



Population 172/238

570,866 (July 2013 est.)

note: estimate is based on projections by age, sex, fertility, mortality, and migration; fertility and mortality are based on data from neighboring countries (July 2015 est.)

Age structure

0-14 years: 37.83% (male 109,147/female 106,789)

15-24 years: 19.63% (male 56,412/female 55,624)

25-54 years: 33.93% (male 95,296/female 98,391)

55-64 years: 4.87% (male 12,974/female 14,829)

65 years and over: 3.75% (male 9,406/female 11,998) (2015 est.)

Dependency ratios

total dependency ratio: 40.2%

youth dependency ratio: 36.1%

elderly dependency ratio: 4.1%

potential support ratio: 24.4% (2015 est.)

Median age

total: 20.9 years

male: 20.5 years

female: 21.4 years (2015 est.)

Population growth rate 12/233

2.82% (2015 est.)

Birth rate 40/224

30.24 births/1,000 population (2015 est.)

Death rate 84/225

8.34 deaths/1,000 population (2015 est.)


urban population: 80.9% of total population (2015)

rate of urbanization: 3.27% annual rate of change (2010-15 est.)

Major urban areas - population

Laayoune 262,000 (2014)

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: 0.78 male(s)/female

total population: 0.99 male(s)/female (2015 est.)

Infant mortality rate 27/224

total: 54.7 deaths/1,000 live births

male: 59.61 deaths/1,000 live births

female: 49.6 deaths/1,000 live births (2015 est.)

Life expectancy at birth 190/224

total population: 62.64 years

male: 60.35 years

female: 65.02 years (2015 est.)

Total fertility rate 38/224

4 children born/woman (2015 est.)

HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate


HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS


HIV/AIDS - deaths



Country name

conventional long form: none

conventional short form: Western Sahara

former: Rio de Oro, Saguia el Hamra, 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, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), based out of refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, led by President Mohamed ABDELAZIZ


Laayoune (administrative center)

time difference: UTC 0 (5 hours ahead of Washington, DC, during Standard Time)

daylight saving time: +1hr, begins last Sunday in April; ends last Sunday in September

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


Political pressure groups and leaders


International organization participation

AU, CAN (observer), WFTU (NGOs)


Economy - overview

Western Sahara has a small market-based economy whose main industries are fishing, phosphate mining, and pastoral nomadism. The territory's arid desert climate makes sedentary agriculture difficult, and Western Sahara imports much of its food. 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.

Oil has never been found in Western Sahara in commercially significant quantities, but Morocco and the Polisario have quarreled over who has the right 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.

GDP (purchasing power parity) 205/230

$906.5 million (2007 est.)

GDP (official exchange rate)

GDP - real growth rate


GDP - per capita (PPP) 198/230

$2,500 (2007 est.)

GDP - composition, by sector of origin

agriculture: NA%

industry: NA%

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 178/233

144,000 (2010 est.)

Labor force - by occupation

agriculture: 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%




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 -

9.59 (2015)

8.38 (2013)

8.38 (2013)

8.6 (2012)

8.09 (2011)


Electricity - production 202/220

90 million kWh (2012 est.)

Electricity - consumption 202/219

83.7 million kWh (2012 est.)

Electricity - exports 215/218

0 kWh (2013 est.)

Electricity - imports 217/219

0 kWh (2013 est.)

Electricity - installed generating capacity 183/214

58,000 kW (2012 est.)

Electricity - from fossil fuels 2/214

100% of total installed capacity (2012 est.)

Electricity - from nuclear fuels 209/214

0% of total installed capacity (2012 est.)

Electricity - from hydroelectric plants 213/214

0% of total installed capacity (2012 est.)

Electricity - from other renewable sources 144/212

0% of total installed capacity (2012 est.)

Crude oil - production 210/214

0 bbl/day (2014 est.)

Crude oil - exports 210/214

0 bbl/day (2012 est.)

Crude oil - imports 149/214

0 bbl/day (2012 est.)

Crude oil - proved reserves 211/215

0 bbl (1 January 2015 est.)

Refined petroleum products - production 147/214

0 bbl/day (2012 est.)

Refined petroleum products - consumption 189/212

1,700 bbl/day (2013 est.)

Refined petroleum products - exports 147/214

0 bbl/day (2012 est.)

Refined petroleum products - imports 185/213

1,702 bbl/day (2012 est.)

Natural gas - production 148/216

0 cu m (2013 est.)

Natural gas - consumption 211/215

0 cu m (2013 est.)

Natural gas - exports 212/215

0 cu m (2013 est.)

Natural gas - imports 81/214

0 cu m (2013 est.)

Natural gas - proved reserves 208/212

0 cu m (1 January 2014 est.)

Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy 189/212

316,100 Mt (2012 est.)


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 (2008)

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)

Radio broadcast stations

AM 2, FM 0, shortwave 0 (1998)

Television broadcast stations


Internet country code



Airports 174/236

6 (2013)

Airports - with paved runways

total: 3

2,438 to 3,047 m: 3 (2013)

Airports - with unpaved runways

total: 3

1,524 to 2,437 m: 1

914 to 1,523 m: 1

under 914 m: 1 (2013)

Ports and terminals

major seaport(s): Ad Dakhla, Laayoune (El Aaiun)

Transnational Issues

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 recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara; approximately 90,000 Sahrawi refugees continue to be sheltered in camps in Tindouf, Algeria, which has hosted Sahrawi refugees since the 1980s