Western Sahara

Western Sahara (or the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic–SADR) is located in northwest Africa, with Morocco to its north and Mauritania to the south and east. From the late nineteenth century, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. As Spain was preparing to decolonize the territory in the early 1970s, Morocco laid claim to it. However, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concluded in an advisory opinion that Rabat had no sovereign rights in Western Sahara, and that instead, the indigenous Saharawi people had a right to self-determination.[1]

In response to the ICJ opinion, Moroccan king Hassan II organized a Green March—a massive civilian and military invasion of the territory on November 6, 1974.[2] The Moroccan government took administrative control of the territory and annexed most of it as the “Southern Provinces” of Morocco in 1976.[3] King Hassan, claiming the consent of the Saharawi people, decided to partition and annex Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania. The POLISARIO, a Saharawi national movement, declared Western Sahara’s independence later that same day[4] and began staging attacks against the occupying force. Since then, dozens of countries have recognized the POLISARIO’s proclaimed state, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, as an independent sovereign nation.                                               

In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 34/37, declaring Morocco an occupying power and reaffirming the Saharawi’s right to self-determination.[5] The GA continued to pass similarly worded resolutions once a year for ten years thereafter. In addition, the UN Secretary General issued a report calling for a settlement plan that allowed the people of Western Sahara to exercise “their right to self-determination.”[6] More recently, the European Court of Justice affirmed Morocco’s status as an occupier of the territory and dismissed Morocco's claim to legal rights over it.[7]

Beginning in the early 1980s, Morocco began to construct a massive wall berm around the areas of Western Sahara it controlled, stranding tens of thousands of Saharawi in refugee camps in the desert, on the Algerian border. It also commenced one of the world’s most extensive settlement projects. Since its invasion in 1976, “Moroccanization” of the Western Saharan population has been official Moroccan public policy.[8] Over the past forty years, the Moroccan government has spent many billions of dollars on Western Sahara’s basic infrastructure, building airports, harbors, roads, and electricity plants.[9] The government has also offered higher salaries in order to incentivize settlers to move to Western Sahara,[10] and salaries in the occupied territory are double salaries in Rabat.[11] Jobs in the lucrative state-controlled extractive industries go primarily to Moroccans settlers. A combination of subsidies, generous incentives, and intensive government spending has resulted in an influx, according to various past indications, of at least 200,000–300,000 Moroccan settlers into the territory.[12] The results have been dramatic: Moroccan settlers now clearly outnumber indigenous Saharawi, with fatal effects for the latter’s self-determination. Indeed, recent reports suggests that Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara outnumber the Saharawi by two to one.[13]

The Moroccan presence in Western Sahara is widely described as one of the world’s most repressive. The situation of the over 100,000 Saharawi living in desert refugee camps is bleak.[14] As one recent account put it:

For those of us who have actually been to Western Sahara, there is no question that it is an occupation. Any verbal or visual expression of support for self-determination is savagely suppressed. Even calls for social and economic justice can be dangerous. The young sociologist Brahim Saika, a leader of a movement of unemployed Sahrawi professionals demanding greater economic justice, was tortured to death while in Moroccan detention in April 2016. Freedom House has ranked Western Sahara as among the dozen least free nations in the world. Indeed, of the more than 70 countries I have visited — including Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Indonesia under Suharto — Western Sahara is the most repressive police state I have ever seen.[15] 

While the territory is quite impoverished, it is rich in various natural resources, with phosphate mining and fishing constituting its principal industries. There are also significant oil exploration projects underway. Morocco has in recent decades begun to aggressively capitalize on the natural resources of its occupied territory. It has also developed an ambitious plan for investing in various energy projects in the territory, especially solar and wind power.[16] It has frequently done so in partnership with foreign firms, in particular those from the European Union, Morocco’s largest trading partner. Indeed, the EU has entered into controversial treaties with Rabat allowing the EU preferential access to trade, and natural resources in particular, in the occupied territory.

In the coming decade, Morocco says it will invest $7 billion developing its control over the territory through new rail, highway, and air transport facilities, as well as a new seaport, stadium, government buildings, and more.[17] Indeed, international law firms have advised their clients that doing business with Morocco in the territory is not illegal. They have instead lauded its economic opportunities, with one noting that “the territory's greenfield potential and Morocco’s support backed by a positive track record for infrastructure and economic development are factors leading more foreign companies to consider investment or operation in the Western Sahara and within the wider region.”[18]                     


The POLISARIO and other Saharawi representatives have consistently opposed the involvement of international firms as a violation of international law and as a form of plunder. A coalition of NGOs, Western Sahara Resource Watch, actively documents what it calls the “plunder” of Saharawi resources by Moroccan and foreign firms. Nonetheless, while a few northern European governments have signaled disapproval of such trade, it has never been blocked, sanctioned, or otherwise penalized.

[1] Western Sahara, Advisory Opinion, 1975 ICJ Reports 12, October 1975.

[2] Akbarali Thobhani, Western Sahara since 1975 under Moroccan Administration, 2002.

[3] Ibid., p. 58.

[4] Proclamation of the First Government of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (February 27, 1976), reprinted in African Group of the International League for the Rights & Liberation of Peoples, Western Sahara: The Struggle of the Saharawi People for Self-Determination, 2nd ed., 1979, pp. 194–95 (note the typo in the date); see also Thomas M. Franck, “The Stealing of Sahara,” American Journal of International Law 70 (October 1976): 694, 715, and nn. 135, 136; Deon Geldenhuys, Contested States in World Politics, 2009, p. 190.

[5] GA Resolution 34/37, 5, 7, UN Doc. A/RES/34/37 (November 21, 1979).

[6] UN Secretary-General, The Situation concerning Western Sahara: Report of the Secretary-General, ¶ 16, UN Doc. S/21360 (June 18, 1990).            

[7] See Fronte Polisario v. European Commission, ECJ (General Court) case T-512/12, par. 13, 76 (December 10, 2015).                              

[8] Anne Lippert, “The Human Costs of War in Western Sahara,” Africa Today 34 (1987): 47, 53; Geldenhuys, Contested States, p. 199 (citing Neil Ford, “Oil Potential Could Provide Catalyst for Change,” Middle East 330 [January 2003]: 54).

[9] Geldenhuys, Contested States.

[10] William J. Durch, “Building on Sand: UN Peacekeeping in the Western Sahara,” International Security 17, no. 4 (1993): 151, 164

[11] Jacob Mundy, “Autonomy & Intifadah: New Horizons in Western Saharan Nationalism,” Review of African Political Economy 33 (2006): 255, 262.

[12] Michael Bhatia, “Western Sahara under Polisario Control: Summary Report of Field Mission to the Sahrawi Refugee Camps (near Tindouf, Algeria),” Review of African Political Economy 28, no. 88 (2001), http://www.arso.org/bhatia2001.htm; Jacob Mundy, “Moroccan Settlers in Western Sahara: Colonists or Fifth Column?” Arab World Geographer 15, no. 2 (January 2012): 95–126.

[13] “Deadlock in the Desert,” Economist, March 10, 2007. The CIA World Factbook puts the SADR’s population today at just over 405,000. Western Sahara, CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/wi.html (last visited December 18, 2009).

[14] David Conrad and Micah Albert, “Nowhere Land,” Foreign Policy, June 25, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/06/25/nowhere-land/.

[15] Nizar Visram, “The World’s Last Colony: Morocco Continues Occupation of Western Sahara, in Defiance of UN,” Modern Diplomacy, March 25, 2017, http://moderndiplomacy.eu/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=2388:the-world-s-last-colony-morocco-continues-occupation-of-western-sahara-in-defiance-of-un&Itemid=141.

[16] Climate Action, “Masen, Africa-based Climate Bonds Pioneer, Issues Morocco’s First Ever Green Bond,” November 7, 2016, http://www.climateactionprogramme.org/press-releases/masen_africa_based_climate_bonds_pioneer_issues_moroccos_first_ever_green_b.

[17] Dentons, “Investment in Morocco and Opportunities for Companies in the Western Sahara,” February 4, 2016, https://www.dentons.com/en/insights/alerts/2016/february/3/investment-in-morocco-and-opportunities-for-companies-in-the-western-sahara.

[18] Ibid.