Western Sahara

Descriptive text is not available for this image



Western Sahara is a non-self-governing 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 Western Sahara between independence (favored by the Polisario Front) or integration into Morocco. A proposed referendum on the question of independence never took place due to lack of agreement on voter eligibility. The approximately 1,600 km- (almost 1,000 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 three-quarters of the territory west of the berm. There are periodic ethnic tensions between the native Sahrawi population and Moroccan immigrants. Morocco maintains a heavy security presence in the territory. The UN revived direct talks about the territory between Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania in December 2018.



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

Geographic coordinates

24 30 N, 13 00 W

Map references



total: 266,000 sq km
land: 266,000 sq km
water: 0 sq km
country comparison to the world: 79

Area - comparative

about the size of Colorado

Land boundaries

total: 2,049 km
border countries (3): Algeria 41 km, Mauritania 1564 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: 256 m
lowest point: Sebjet Tah -55 m
highest point: unnamed elevation 805 m

Natural resources

phosphates, iron ore

Land use

agricultural land: 18.8% (2011 est.)
arable land: 0% (2011 est.)/permanent crops: 0% (2011 est.)/permanent pasture: 18.8% (2011 est.)
forest: 2.7% (2011 est.)
other: 78.5% (2011 est.)

Irrigated land

0 sq km (2012)

Population distribution

most of the population lives in the two-thirds of the area west of the berm (Moroccan-occupied) that divides the territory; about 40% of that populace resides in Laayoune

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

desertification; overgrazing; sparse water and lack of arable land

Geography - note

the waters off the coast are particularly rich fishing areas

People and Society


619,551 (July 2018 est.)
note: estimate is based on projections by age, sex, fertility, mortality, and migration; fertility and mortality are based on data from neighboring countries
country comparison to the world: 168


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

Ethnic groups

Arab, Berber


Standard Arabic, Hassaniya Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Berber, Spanish, French



Demographic profile

Western Sahara is a non-self governing territory; approximately 75% is under Moroccan control. It was inhabited almost entirely by Sahrawi pastoral nomads until the mid-20th century. Their traditional vast migratory ranges, based on following unpredictable rainfall, did not coincide with colonial and later international borders. Since the 1930s, most Sahrawis have been compelled to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and to live in urban settings as a result of fighting, the presence of minefields, job opportunities in the phosphate industry, prolonged drought, the closure of Western Sahara’s border with Mauritania from 1979-2002, and the construction of the defensive berm separating Moroccan- and Polisario-controlled (Sahrawi liberalization movement) areas. Morocco supported rapid urbanization to facilitate surveillance and security.Today more than 80% of Western Sahara’s population lives in urban areas; more than 40% live in the administrative center Laayoune. Moroccan immigration has altered the composition and dramatically increased the size of Western Sahara’s population. Morocco maintains a large military presence in Western Sahara and has encouraged its citizens to settle there, offering bonuses, pay raises, and food subsidies to civil servants and a tax exemption, in order to integrate Western Sahara into the Moroccan Kingdom and, Sahrawis contend, to marginalize the native population.Western Saharan Sahrawis have been migrating to Europe, principally to former colonial ruler Spain, since the 1950s. Many who moved to refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, also have migrated to Spain and Italy, usually alternating between living in cities abroad with periods back at the camps. The Polisario claims that the population of the Tindouf camps is about 155,000, but this figure may include thousands of Arabs and Tuaregs from neighboring countries. Because international organizations have been unable to conduct an independent census in Tindouf, the UNHCR bases its aid on a figure of 90,000 refugees. Western Saharan coastal towns emerged as key migration transit points (for reaching Spain’s Canary Islands) in the mid-1990s, when Spain’s and Italy’s tightening of visa restrictions and EU pressure on Morocco and other North African countries to control illegal migration pushed sub-Saharan African migrants to shift their routes to the south.

Age structure

0-14 years: 36.93%(male 115,703 /female 113,121)
15-24 years: 19.49%(male 60,793 /female 59,948)
25-54 years: 34.52%(male 105,420 /female 108,462)
55-64 years: 5.11%(male 14,773 /female 16,880)
65 years and over: 3.95%(male 10,787 /female 13,664) (2018 est.)
population pyramid:

Descriptive text is not available for this image

Dependency ratios

total dependency ratio: 45 (2015 est.)
youth dependency ratio: 41.4 (2015 est.)
elderly dependency ratio: 3.7 (2015 est.)
potential support ratio: 27.1 (2015 est.)

Median age

total: 21.5 years (2018 est.)
male: 21 years
female: 21.9 years
country comparison to the world: 181

Population growth rate

2.64% (2018 est.)
country comparison to the world: 17

Birth rate

28.9 births/1,000 population (2018 est.)
country comparison to the world: 41

Death rate

7.9 deaths/1,000 population (2018 est.)
country comparison to the world: 95

Net migration rate

5.4 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2018 est.)
country comparison to the world: 23

Population distribution

most of the population lives in the two-thirds of the area west of the berm (Moroccan-occupied) that divides the territory; about 40% of that populace resides in Laayoune


urban population: 86.8% of total population(2019)
rate of urbanization: 2.61% annual rate of change(2015-20 est.)

Major urban areas - population

232,000 Laayoune (2018)

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: 0.79 male(s)/female
total population: 0.99 male(s)/female (2018 est.)

Infant mortality rate

total: 50.5 deaths/1,000 live births (2018 est.)
male: 55.3 deaths/1,000 live births
female: 45.6 deaths/1,000 live births
country comparison to the world: 27

Life expectancy at birth

total population: 63.8 years (2018 est.)
male: 61.4 years
female: 66.2 years
country comparison to the world: 195

Total fertility rate

3.79 children born/woman (2018 est.)
country comparison to the world: 40

HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate


HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS


HIV/AIDS - deaths


Education expenditures



Country name

conventional long form: none
conventional short form: Western Sahara
former: Rio de Oro, Saguia el Hamra, Spanish Sahara
etymology: self-descriptive name specifying the territory's western location on the African continent's vast desert

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), near Tindouf, Algeria, led by President Mohamed ABDELAZIZ until his death in May 2016; current President Brahim GHALI elected in July 2016; territory partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania in April 1976 when Spain withdrew, 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; Morocco between 1980 and 1987 built a fortified sand berm delineating the roughly 75% of Western Sahara west of the barrier that currently is controlled by Morocco; guerrilla activities continued sporadically until a UN-monitored cease-fire was implemented on 6 September 1991 (Security Council Resolution 690) by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)


time difference: UTC 0 (5 hours ahead of Washington, DC, during Standard Time)
daylight saving time: +1hr, begins last Sunday in March; ends last Sunday in October

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


International organization participation

AU, CAN (observer), WFTU (NGOs)

Diplomatic representation in the US


Diplomatic representation from the US



Economy - overview

Western Sahara has a small market-based economy whose main industries are fishing, phosphate mining, tourism, and pastoral nomadism. The territory's arid desert climate makes sedentary agriculture difficult, and much of its food is imported. 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. As of April 2018, Moroccan and EU authorities were negotiating an amendment to renew the agreement.Oil has never been found in Western Sahara in commercially significant quantities, but Morocco and the Polisario have quarreled over rights 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. However, following King MOHAMMED VI’s November 2015 visit to Western Sahara, the Government of Morocco announced a series of investments aimed at spurring economic activity in the region, while the General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises announced a $609 million investment initiative in the region in March 2015.

GDP (purchasing power parity)

$906.5 million (2007 est.)
country comparison to the world: 205

GDP (official exchange rate)


GDP - real growth rate


GDP - per capita (PPP)

$2,500 (2007 est.)
country comparison to the world: 198

GDP - composition, by sector of origin

agriculture: NA (2007 est.)
industry: NA (2007 est.)
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

144,000 (2010 est.)
country comparison to the world: 178

Labor force - by occupation

agriculture: 50%
industry: 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


revenues: NA
expenditures: 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 -
9.639 (2017 est.)
9.7351 (2016 est.)
9.7351 (2015)
9.7351 (2014 est.)
8.3798 (2013 est.)


Electricity - production

0 kWhNA (2016 est.)
country comparison to the world: 220

Electricity - consumption

0 kWh (2016 est.)
country comparison to the world: 219

Electricity - exports

0 kWh (2016 est.)
country comparison to the world: 218

Electricity - imports

0 kWh (2016 est.)
country comparison to the world: 218

Electricity - installed generating capacity

58,000 kW (2016 est.)
country comparison to the world: 188

Electricity - from fossil fuels

100% of total installed capacity (2016 est.)
country comparison to the world: 22

Electricity - from nuclear fuels

0% of total installed capacity (2017 est.)
country comparison to the world: 212

Electricity - from hydroelectric plants

0% of total installed capacity (2017 est.)
country comparison to the world: 214

Electricity - from other renewable sources

0% of total installed capacity (2017 est.)
country comparison to the world: 214

Crude oil - production

0 bbl/day (2018 est.)
country comparison to the world: 218

Crude oil - exports

0 bbl/day (2015 est.)
country comparison to the world: 216

Crude oil - imports

0 bbl/day (2015 est.)
country comparison to the world: 216

Crude oil - proved reserves

0 bbl (1 January 2018 est.)
country comparison to the world: 213

Refined petroleum products - production

0 bbl/day (2015 est.)
country comparison to the world: 216

Refined petroleum products - consumption

1,700 bbl/day (2016 est.)
country comparison to the world: 197

Refined petroleum products - exports

0 bbl/day (2015 est.)
country comparison to the world: 216

Refined petroleum products - imports

1,702 bbl/day (2015 est.)
country comparison to the world: 193

Natural gas - production

0 cu m (2017 est.)
country comparison to the world: 215

Natural gas - consumption

0 cu m (2017 est.)
country comparison to the world: 214

Natural gas - exports

0 cu m (2017 est.)
country comparison to the world: 213

Natural gas - imports

0 cu m (2017 est.)
country comparison to the world: 213

Natural gas - proved reserves

0 cu m (1 January 2014 est.)
country comparison to the world: 208

Carbon dioxide emissions from consumption of energy

268,400 Mt (2017 est.)
country comparison to the world: 194


Telephone system

general assessment: sparse and limited system
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

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

Internet country code




6 (2013)
country comparison to the world: 178

Airports - with paved runways

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

Airports - with unpaved runways

total: 3 (2013)
1,524 to 2,437 m: 1 (2013)
914 to 1,523 m: 1 (2013)
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 support Morocco’s proposal to grant the territory autonomy as part of Morocco, although no state recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara; an estimated 100,000 Sahrawi refugees continue to be sheltered in camps in Tindouf, Algeria, which has hosted Sahrawi refugees since the 1980s