The Forgotten Conflict over Western Sahara

I’m having problems with motivation right now, as I’m more or less waiting for articles to get accepted and to defend my thesis, so I thought it might be a good idea to publish a text I wrote in 2010 for a course in Middle Eastern studies. I’ve modified it a bit but have not had time to check all facts (as I trust that I did that when I wrote it). So, here’s my short piece on Western Sahara! If it causes at least one person to check it out on Wikipedia, then I’ve succeeded. 

While the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has a constant attention in the media, the case of Western Sahara seems to be less known. There are however similarities between the two conflicts, such as long term occupation, refugee camps and Diaspora. Just as the Oslo accords were initiated in the early 90’s, a ceasefire that was supposed to be followed by a referendum of self-determination, proposed by the United Nations (UN) and Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was accepted in 1988 by Morocco and the Sahrawis. Sixteen years later, no referendum had been implemented and 160000 people continued to live in exile. In 2010, news from Western Sahara described the Moroccan storming of a camp near the capital Laayoune, as a response to demonstrations against Moroccan rule, where at least five people were killed. In this brief text I intend to summarize the case of Western Sahara, the reasons for its current status and the similarities and differences to the well known conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Western Sahara is the term used to describe the territory southwest of Morocco, also bordering Algeria and Mauretania. It has a population of approximately 500000 inhabitants and most of them are Arab or Amazigh (Berber), who call themselves Sahrawis and are mainly Muslim. The area is sometimes mistaken for an empty desert area but in fact it holds important natural resources, mainly minerals, and a strategic position of 700 km of Atlantic coastline. Additionally, Western Sahara holds some of the world’s richest fishing waters, which are currently being exploited by Morocco and certain countries in the European Union.

Spain colonized Western Sahara at the end of the 19th century and renamed it Rio de Oro, which later became Spanish Sahara. Morocco however perceived Western Sahara to be part of their Bilad al Siba region, a perception that has led to the further colonization of Western Sahara. While most North African countries were at least formally decolonized in 1962, Western Sahara continued to be under Spanish rule. Three years later, the UN issued a resolution stating Western Saharas right to decolonization and one year later, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) called for the freedom and independence of the territory, but nothing happened. In 1973, the POLISARIO (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro) was developed by young, educated Sahrawis. Ten days later, they had begun their guerrilla war against the Spanish colonialism and in 1974 they had decided that their final goal was autonomy. In May 1975, POLISARIO was described by a visiting UN mission as a strong political force and by September, Spain had recognized this strength and started considering plans for handing over the authority to them. The prerequisite was that Spain could keep their fishing and phosphate privileges. At the same time, King Hassan of Morocco initiated the “Green March” which was a large mass demonstration with purpose to pressure the Spanish government to leave Western Sahara and to hand it over to Morocco. This provocing action upset the Sahrawis and POLISARIO gained more support, but the situation in Spain with General Franco being ill and the pressure from Morocco, made Spain reconsider its trajectory. This lead to the signing of the Madrid Accords with Morocco and Mauretania in 1975, when the territory of Western Sahara was divided between the latter. This agreement had, according to Zoubir (2010), no validity and as of today, no country has recognized Moroccos sovereignty over Western Sahara.

As Spain withdrew, the Sahrawis proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) while POLISARIO resisted the Moroccan and Mauretanian invasion. POLISARIO knew that Mauretania was most vulnerable and attacked them, which in 1978 led to a ceasefire and in 1979; Mauretania recognized SADR and gave up their territory to them. The territory was however quickly occupied by Morocco. The construction of a sand wall was initiated by Morocco in the early 1980’s, with the purpose to keep Sahrawi guerrillas away from the most strategic areas of Western Sahara. The 1990’s was a decade of cease fires, referendums and several attempts to come to an agreement, but the stalemate remains despite attempts.

A common explanation for the failure of a referendum in Western Sahara is the problem of who can vote and how they can be identified. A more important reason for the status quo may be the fact that the conflict started during the cold war and that the countries involved in the settlement plans have their own interests. Just as in the case for Palestine, Western Sahara is part of a larger political game where the people with the power to change the situations also have their own political and/or economical interests in the conflicts. A longstanding friendship between US, Morocco and France has also had an important impact on the conflict throughout the years. Violations against international law committed by Morocco during the last thirty-five years has not concerned neither the US nor France. If I were to describe a conflict that included a separation wall, economic exploitation, refugees and occupying powers that are strongly convinced of their rights to the territories, what case would you think I was talking about? 


T. Shelley, ’Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony?’, Zed Books, London & New York, 2004, pp: ix-2.

BBC News, Deadly  clashes as Morocco breaks up Western Sahara camp, Nov 2010,

CIA, World Factbook – ‘Western Sahara’,, Information retrieved 2010-12-06.

Y. H Zoubir., Chapter 11: Conflict in Western Sahara in Sorensen’s Interpreting the Middle East, Westview Press, 2010.

P. C. Naylor, North Africa: A History From Antiquity to the Present, University of Texas Press, Austin Texas, 2009 pp:161, 168.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s