Western Sahara isn’t really a country. Really, most of the territory isn’t anything at all except for a sandy, expansive nothingness. With fishing on the coast and an infamous lack of resources including water anywhere else, 81% of the roughly half-million people within the territory live in an urban city. Of these, half live in the capital, Laayoune or El-Ayun. So why then is there the need for a UN Peacekeeping presence? Better yet, why is there a 2,700km wall within the area’s borders which is flanked by landmines?
Western Sahara was formerly known as Spanish Sahara, a Spanish colony on the Northwestern corner of Africa near Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. Claimed by the Moroccans since the late 1950’s, Spain would finally relinquish control of the territory in 1976. As it withdrew, it gave authority of the region to Morocco and Mauritania who were to split the area geographically. This did not take into account a third group, the local Sahrawis.
The Sahrawis wanted self-determination and nationalization. They formed a movement to counter the Moroccan and Mauritanian presence and to support their own national dreams. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic would be led in its fight by its armed group, the Polisario Front.
By 1980 conflict between Morocco and Mauritania had evicted the latter from the region, giving Morocco a clear dominance over Western Sahara. The Polisario Front could not win a conventional battle, so they relied on unconventional tactics. A guerilla war was fought between the two parties until an eventual armistice in 1991 which still holds to this day. There is no permanent peace between the two groups, but like with the Korean Peninsula, there is just a tense cycle of buildup and draw-down without open battle.
Following the armistice a UN mission was sent to Western Sahara. Based in El-Ayun, the mission monitors the Moroccan military while also watching for any signs that the Polisario Front is violating the agreement and has begun using guerilla tactics once more. Possibly more frightening, the area is considered a key region for potential future terrorism, including ISIS which may look to exploit the disenfranchised Sahrawis and turn them onto an anti-western ideology. At this point, though, violence is rather rare in the territory thanks to the armistice, the UN, and The Berm.
The Berm is a massive sand-wall which stretches most of the length of the territory. At 2,700km in length, it was constructed by Moroccan forces during the conflict with the Polisario Front. Today it remains a reminder of the splintered region as the many landmines on both sides of the wall effectively render it impassible.
While Morocco claims to hold authority over the entirety of Western Sahara, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic still feels that they are the rightful government of all the land, in reality the wall has fully divided the area. The Western side of the wall with the population centers of El-Ayun and Dakhla belong to Morocco, along with the resources brought in by the coast. Meanwhile, the Eastern side of The Berm is the “Free Zone” of the Sahrawis. Yet, with no large cities, no arable land, and little access to water, the Free Zone is mostly uninhabited and the Sahrawi leadership is operating out of Algeria.
If you’ve ever looked at a map of the world and wondered about that dotted line in Northwestern Africa, now you know that the non-committed line is the story of Western Sahara. Little international recognition is given for Moroccan authority over Western Sahara, and in fact the UN grants some legitimacy to the Sahrawis and the Polisario Front. However, with much of the world in the dark regarding the region and the threat of extremism taking root there, it is likely that Western Sahara will be known one day as simply the Southern Provinces of Morocco.