Regional Spotlight and Explainer: the Western Sahara Dispute

Spotlight on the Western Sahara Dispute

The ongoing conflict discussed here between the Kingdom of Morocco and the people of the little known Western Sahara is not mentioned in high school textbooks and is not a prominent story mentioned in media, if it is even addressed at all. On occasion the dispute will gain attention, as it has recently following contentious statements by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The Western Sahara area nonetheless does come up in U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East. What exactly is going on in the Western Sahara, and why does it matter?

Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States in 1777 and the two countries have maintained good relations on a variety of fronts such as trade and counter-terrorism. On the periphery of the geographical Middle East, Morocco has been one of the few consistent allies of the United States in a region fraught with instability. The U.S. is a staunch defender of global democracy and human rights, though, and Morocco has been criticized for its unfair treatment of the Sahrawi people; could Morocco’s approach to the Western Sahara affect diplomatic relations between the two countries? Learn more about the subject here and access further information and primary sources below.

Part I: Background

In 1975, the Kingdom of Morocco annexed an area of land known as the Western Sahara, bordering Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria in northwestern Africa. The people of the Western Sahara, known as the Sahrawi, have pursued independence through a movement called the Polisario Front, which receives support from Algeria and other allies. A breakaway state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, operates in the eastern part of the territory but Morocco continues to control the western Atlantic Ocean coastal area. Since 1991, the long simmering territorial dispute has been monitored by the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which has convened several unsuccessful informal talks and official negotiations between the parties involved. The peacekeeping operation in the Western Sahara consists of roughly 500 staff members.

The ultimate goal of MINURSO is to resolve the dispute through a Moroccan-held referendum that would offer the Saharawi people the choice of territorial independence, sovereignty within the Moroccan state, or a continuation of the status quo. This goal has been at an impasse for decades as the Moroccan government refuses to relinquish its claim to the land while the Polisario Front refuses to settle for anything less than complete independence.

In March 2016, the New York Times reported that tensions were escalating again in the Western Sahara after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a visit to the area. In a statement after his visit, Ban referred to Moroccan involvement in Western Sahara as “occupation,” triggering backlash from Morocco and leading to a retraction of the statement by the secretary general’s office. Moroccan officials have steadily lost faith n Ban’s neutrality, say analysts like McDaniel College’s International Relations professor, Anouar Boukhars, who suggested that Ban Ki-moon’s critical comments were the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for the kingdom’s leaders.

Following massive protests in Morocco directed at UN secretary general, the Moroccan government cut support for the UN mission by $3 million. Ban responded by saying he had been “personally offended” by the move and reminded the Moroccan foreign minister that Western Sahara’s status had “yet to be decided.” In spite of UN Security Council efforts to de-escalate the situation, on March 18, Morocco ordered the evacuation of 84 members of the mission. On March 21, Morocco further requested that the military branch of the mission be disbanded “soon.” These recent developments have triggered renewed international interest in the conflict over Western Sahara, but analysts believe Mr. Ban’s action will harm future negotiation efforts.

Part II: An Explainer from Newsweek

Western Sahara: What is the 40-Year Dispute All About? By Connor Gaffey

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, left, arrives for a meeting with the Polisario Front’s representative at the U.N. in Bir-Lahlou, in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, March 5. The region has been subject to a protracted dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front, backed by Algeria. Photo: Farouk Batiche/AFP/Getty Images

A recent visit by the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to refugee camps for people displaced by the Western Sahara conflict has stirred up tensions in the 40-year dispute.

The Moroccan government lashed out at Ban, whom they accused of dropping the U.N.’s avowed neutrality in the dispute over the North African territory, during the Secretary General’s visit to refugee camps in Algeria. A variety of groups have been dragged into the long-running tensions, including the African Union (AU), the European Union and even Swedish furniture manufacturers IKEA.

Here, Newsweek explains who’s involved in the dispute, which has created thousands of refugees in one of the world’s harshest environments and was referred to by Ban as “one of the forgotten humanitarian tragedies of our times.”

What is Western Sahara?

Roughly the size of the U.S. state of Colorado, Western Sahara is a region on North Africa’s Atlantic coast bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. It was colonized by Spain in 1884 and remained part of the Spanish kingdom for more than a hundred years. An arid region where less than one-fifth of the land is used for agriculture, Western Sahara is home to lucrative phosphate and iron ore reserves and is believed to have untouched offshore oil deposits. The native population of Sahrawis number around 570,000 and the majority religion is Islam.

Who is fighting over Western Sahara?

On one side, Morocco; on the other, an indigenous Sahrawi movement and Algeria by proxy. In 1975, Morocco effectively annexed Western Sahara by staging the Green March—a peaceful procession of 350,000 Moroccans who walked into the region and claimed it as their own. Spain subsequently transferred control of the region to Morocco and Mauritania.

Moroccan volunteers attending the Green March leave Ait Meloul camp on October 25, 1975. Some 350,000 Moroccans marched into the then-Spanish territory to claim it for the North African country. Image: AFP/Georges Bendrihim/Getty Images

As a result, the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi movement founded in 1973 to campaign for the independence of Western Sahara, launched a guerrilla struggle against what it saw as the Moroccan-Mauritanian occupation of its indigenous land. The conflict lasted until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire was agreed in 1991 and resulted in the displacement of thousands of Sahrawis into refugee camps across the Algerian border in Tindouf, where they remain to this day. The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates 90,000 people are living in the camps, while the Algerian government puts it at 165,000. During the struggle, Mauritania renounced its claim to the region and Moroccan authorities gradually built a wall through the territory, annexing two-thirds of the country and leaving a dangerous no-man’s land between the two that is now patrolled by a U.N. monitoring force.

What does the rest of the world think?

Within Africa, the independence of Western Sahara—or what is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), according to the Polisario Front—is widely acknowledged. The status is recognized by Africa’s two political giants, South Africa and Nigeria, and the African Union (AU) sent a delegation to celebrations at the Tindouf camps in March marking the 40th anniversary of the Republic’s declaration in 1976. The AU’s stance is contentious for Morocco, which withdrew from the AU’s predecessor the Organization of African Unity in 1984 over the Western Sahara dispute and is currently the only African country that voluntarily refuses to join the union.

A recent dispute between the EU and Morocco also highlighted the growing support for Western Sahara’s independence. Morocco recently announced it was suspending contact with EU institutions after the EU’s General Court—the second-highest EU tribunal—ruled that a trade pact between Morocco and the EU should not apply to products from Western Sahara.

Another such incident occurred in September 2015, when Morocco blocked the expansion of IKEA into its territory, reportedly because of Sweden’s position on Western Sahara. The Swedish parliament voted to recognize the SADR in 2011, though the Swedish government told Newsweek in September 2015 that Sweden’s stance on the territory was under review.

Soldiers from the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army parade at a ceremony marking 40 years since the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was declared in 1976 in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, February 27. Image: Farouk Batiche/AFP/Getty Images

Why is Morocco upset with Ban Ki-moon?

Morocco issued a riposte after accusing Ban of referring to Western Sahara as “occupied” during his recent visit to refugees in Tindouf, although the term was not recorded in Ban’s official remarks. The Moroccan government said that Ban had “dropped his neutrality and impartiality” and showed a “guilty indulgence with a puppet state without attributes, territory, population nor a

recognized flag,” according to Reuters. The Polisario Front was boosted by Ban’s visit and his pledge to drum up international support for the plight of Sahrawi refugees, with Mohamed Limam Mohamed Ali, the Polisario Front’s representative in London, saying that Ban’s visit had given “reason for optimism.”

How can the dispute be resolved?

Morocco wants Western Sahara to remain as an autonomous, self-governing part of its territory, in a fashion similar to the autonomous communities in Spain. The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, demands a referendum on the region’s independence, which the U.N.’s mission in the region is ostensibly aimed at facilitating. But with negligible progress made since the ceasefire in 1991, it appears that one of the world’s most intractable and neglected disputes may continue to rumble on.

Article originally appeared at


Part III: Learn more about U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy

So, what does the United States’ think about the issue?

Taking the middle ground, the United States supports Morocco’s autonomy plan for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, considering it both credible and realistic, the U.S. mission to the United Nations has stated. Spokesman Kurtis Cooper said on his Twitter feed, “It represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of Western Sahara.” This compromise would grant the Sahrawi people autonomy and authority within an area of the Moroccan state. This is an indication that the United States sees the need for a compromise in order to come to a settlement on the issue, but is also not willing to upset the stable relationship it holds with Morocco.

Practical applications for educators?

How can this essay be used in the classroom?

Here are some discussion and essay prompts to help students think critically about what motivates U.S. foreign policy. Firstly, read more about the relationship between the United States and Morocco and make your own conclusions about the comments from the spokesman of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. In your opinion, did he make the right call? Should he have been more or less supportive of one side or another in the dispute? Why?

  • What do you think the United States prioritizes in its relationships with international partners? The promotion of American values? Education? Trade and economic prosperity? Human rights? Does this change from country to country?
  • Why does the government support, criticize, or intervene in specific situations throughout the world? Why does it release statements about its stance on certain issues?
  • When is it not in the United States’ interests to get involved in foreign disputes?
  • What international issues do you think the U.S. should or should not address?
  • Why would American leaders attempt to stay neutral on certain matters that the public feels strongly for or against?


 Part IV: Resources

The United Nations and the Western Sahara  

Security Council Resolutions
Security Council Reports on the Western Sahara
Selected General Assembly Documents
Secretary-General’s Reports
United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara
Overview of the Mission mandate of MINURSO (UN Peacekeeping Mission in Western Sahara)


Key Dates in the History of Western Sahara (BBC)

1884 – Spain colonizes Western Sahara, an area formerly populated by Berber tribes.
1934 – Becomes a Spanish province known as Spanish Sahara.
1957 – Newly-independent Morocco lays centuries-old claim to Western Sahara.
1965 – The UN calls for the decolonization of Western Sahara.
1973 – Polisario Front, the indigenous Saharawi independence movement, is founded.
1975 – Morocco’s King Hassan defies a Hague ruling in favor of Saharawi rights to self-determination and stages the “Green March” of 350,000 Moroccans into Western Sahara. Spain transfers administrative control to Morocco and Mauritania.
1975-91 – Polisario Front fights a 16-year-long guerrilla war against Moroccan forces, which ends with a UN-brokered cease-fire.
1975-76 – Morocco annexes two-thirds of Western Sahara after colonial power Spain withdraws. Polisario guerrillas declare the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with a government-in-exile in Algeria. Thousands of Sahrawi refugees flee to western Algeria to set up camps near the town of Tindouf.
1979 – Mauritania renounces all claims to Western Sahara leaving Morocco to annex its share of the territory.
1991-2000s – UN brokered cease-fire ends war but Morocco has yet to hold an agreed referendum on independence. Numerous UN-sponsored talks have failed to yield a breakthrough.


Additional information on the topic:

Chronology of Events Related to the Western Sahara
C.I.A. World Factbook: Western Sahara
Letter from the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic to the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre regarding report entitled, “The Polisario Front, Credible Negotiations Partner or After-Effect of the Cold War and Obstacle to a Political Solution in Western Sahara”
Morocco rejects U.N. view of Western Sahara ‘misunderstanding’
Time for a Referendum in Western Sahara
UN chief regrets Western Sahara ‘occupation’ comment
U.S. supports Moroccan autonomy plan for Western Sahara
Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony
Western Sahara BBC Profile


Additional Credits: Revolution Slider Photo – By Saharauiak – originally posted to Flickr as Soldadu saharauiak – Polisario troops, CC BY-SA 2.0,





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