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CASE AUTHOR: Shari Berke, Summer 1997


1. Abstract

Morocco and the Polisario Front are contesting the Western Sahara, a 266,000-square kilometer territory in the northwest corner of Africa. Named by the UN in 1975, the desert area was formerly a Spanish colony (1884-1976), known in the West as the Spanish Sahara. Spain handed over administrative authority to Morocco and Mauritania in a November 1975 tripartite agreement. Morocco's claims are based on the desire to restore the boundaries of the Almoravid Empire of the 11-12th centuries. Morocco also sees Spain's withdrawal as the continuation of the gradual decolonization of Morocco, which will not be complete until Spain also gives up Ceuta and Melilla, the two remaining Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco. The day after Spain withdrew from the territory in 1976, the POLISARIO (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a government in exile, and initiated a guerrilla war against Morocco and Mauritania. King Hassan of Morocco responded by sending in troops. The area is valuable not only because of its natural resources, but as a bargaining chip in North African geopolitics. Despite the United Nations attempts to resolve the conflict, the Western Sahara remains the only unresolved colonial dispute in Africa. (Eritrea was the last to gain independence, in 1993.)

2. Description

The first known inhabitants of the Western Sahara were Berber tribes during the Roman period. The tribes were originally sedentary, engaging in agriculture. During the Christian era, they became nomadic. By the 9th century, these nomads were known for their warlike qualities, as they raided caravans, engaged in robbery and feuded with rival tribes. The descendants of the Berbers in modern-day Western Sahara are the Tekna. In the 14th century, Arab tribes that swept across North Africa from Egypt, began to settle in the territory. Forced out of Morocco, the Ulad Delim tribe established itself in Western Sahara. From 1400-1700, the Arabs and the Berbers formed tribal alliances and intermarried. The Arabic dialect replaced Berber and conversions to Islam took place. Arab penetration ran deep as all former Berber tribes claimed Arab descent as of the 18th century. Another component of the Western Saharan population is the Reguibat, a large Beduin tribe of Arab origin, whose members trace their ancestry to Sidi Ahmed al-Reguibi, who settled in southern Morocco in 1503. These nomadic Beduins roam over an area that includes parts of Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali and Algeria. Today, only the northern Tekna tribes speak Berber. Most of population speaks Hassaniyya Arabic, which is the dialect spoken in southern Morocco and Mauritania. Language, in addition to shared ethnicity, cultural tradition and religion, links the Saharawis of Western Sahara to Saharawis in southern Morocco and western Algeria, and to the Moors (of mixed Arab-Berber background) of Mauritania.

Prior to the 20th century, the Western Sahara remained outside the control of any central authority. Neither Roman rule nor the Arab dynasty in Morocco penetrated the area. Only the Almoravids (1061-1147), a Berber dynasty from southern Mauritania that preached Islamic puritanism, included Western Sahara in any sort of political and administrative entity. Western Sahara's history changed when the European powers divided up Africa at the end of the 19th century. Spain took the largely uninhabitable desert area largely by default, although it did see the Western Sahara as strategic support for its presence in the Canary Islands and as a commercial asset for its fishing potential. Spain's claim was officially recognized by the European powers at the 1884 Berlin conference.

Walls built by the Almoravids

For half a century, the Spanish presence consisted of several coastal trading stations. Gradually, Spain extended its occupation to the southern coast in 1920 and to the ruins of Smara in 1936. It governed this area through the central administration of a military governor in Ifni. After Morocco gained independence from France in March 1956, it laid claims to all Spanish possessions in northwest Africa. Moroccan tribal forces attacked Spanish military forces in the Western Sahara and forced them back to the coastal cities. France and Spain together defeated the Moroccan insurgency and retook Smara. Spain assigned three deputies to represent the territory in the parliament in Madrid, but never set up a formal administration in the territory until 1963.

The 1960s and 1970s marked the rise of Saharawi nationalism and guerilla warfare, at the same time that Morocco began to reassert its historic claim over the area. Morocco's claims are based on the concept of Greater Morocco, an area covering all of Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara, northwest Mali and western Algeria the former territories of the Almoravid Empire. In 1975, King Hassan led some 350,000 civilians on a Green March into the territory, drawing international attention to Morocco's mission to reassert sovereignty over the area.

As Morocco moved into the north, Mauritania entered the southern part of the territory. Its claim was based on shared ethnicity among the Moorish population of nomadic tribes that inhabited Greater Morocco. Supporters of a Greater Mauritania could also claim that the Almoravid dynasty was created by tribes in Mauritania. When Spain pulled out of the territory in 1976, Morocco, Mauritania and Spain met secretly in Madrid to sign the Madrid Accords which gave the northern two-thirds to Morocco and the southern one-third to Mauritania. Mauritania, pressured by POLISARIO guerrillas, gave up its territorial claims in 1979. Morocco remained and moved its troops in to assume administrative control.

The POLISARIO was an outgrowth of the earlier Saharan Liberation Movement (MLS). Founded in 1968, the MLS initially sought equal rights of citizenship for Saharawis under Spanish administration, rather than full independence. When the Spanish authorities in El Ayoun revealed their plans to fully integrate Sahara into Spain, the group switched its tactics from non-violence to armed struggle, and turned to outside sources for support. During the first two years of its existence, the POLISARIO was based out of Mauritania, from which it launched attacks against Spanish troops. The group also received support from Libya, who was opposed to Spanish occupation of the area. When Morocco and Mauritania moved into the Western Sahara in 1975, the POLISARIO proclaimed a government in exile.

The POLISARIO assisted thousands of Saharawis to flee to refugee camps in southwest Algeria near Tindouf. The camps are surprisingly well organized into four camps or districts, which are subdivided into villages and neighborhoods. The SADR set up ministries to deal with the administration of the camps. These ministries include transport, development, health, education, justice, commerce, foreign and internal affairs and defense. Each camp is run by a popular council; the president of the council is elected by the population of the camp. Since most of the men serve in the military, the women play a large role in administering daily life in the camps.

The SADR attracted international attention to the plight of the Saharawi people as the Organization of African Unity states and many other third world governments recognized its legitimacy. The OAU accepted the SADR as its 51st member state in 1982. However, the Polisario-SADR delegation agreed not to take its seat as a full member so as not to create divisions between OAU members favoring Sahawari independence and those supporting Morocco. When the SADR finally did assume its seat in 1984, Morocco resigned from the organization in protest.

The OAU recommended a referendum to determine the future of the disputed territory, and resolved to determine voter eligibility. The problem was how to implement this plan, since the Sahawari population was largely nomadic and there were few written records of citizenship from the Spanish period. In 1985, the UN endorsed the OAU's plan for a referendum and Secretary General Perez de Cuellar declared that UN forces must first survey the Sahrawi population for voter eligibility. In June 1990, de Cuellar laid out a detailed plan for the UN presence in Western Sahara, that included the cessation of hostilities between Morocco and the POLISARIO; troop withdrawals; the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force named the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO); the establishment of an Identification Commission to identify eligible voters; and a referendum to be held 24 months after the start of the implementation of the plan. The UN Security Council unanimously approved this recommendation.

In addition to military confrontation, the two parties disagreed over the findings of the Identification Commission. The commission tallied some 74,000 voters based on the Spanish census of 1974. Both parties agreed that all Saharawis over age 18 (those counted in the 1974 census) were eligible to vote. Nonetheless, Morocco moved thousands of people into Western Sahara and requested permission for an additional 120,000 citizens of Saharan birth or parentage to participate in the poll, to bolster Moroccan claims over the territory. To this day, the issue of a referendum remains held up on the voter eligibility issue. The 1995 deadline for a referendum, partial withdrawal of troops and exchange of prisoners have not been met.

The Western Sahara issue is stalled but not dead. On March 17, 1997, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed former secretary of state James Baker as his personal envoy to break the diplomatic deadlock in the Western Sahara. Both parties have expressed to Baker their willingness to fully implement a cease-fire and peace plan. The most recent discussions were held in London, June 11-12, between Baker and each of the parties separately. After two days of talks, in which Algeria and Mauritania served as observers, Baker announced that a UN peace plan cannot be implemented before direct negotiations between Morocco and the POLISARIO take place. So far Morocco has refused to negotiate directly with SADR leadership. The UN Secretary invited the two parties to the next round of talks in Lisboa, Portugal, June 23-5. They have not yet responded to the invitation. Although Bill Richardson, the U.S. representative to the UN, stated that the U.S. would withdraw support for MINURSO if there is no breakthrough in negotiations, the UN Security Council extended MINURSO's mandate through September. The UN also reiterated its commitment to the holding of a referendum for the self-determination of Saharawis in accordance with a peace settlement adopted by both parties.

3. Duration: 1975 to now

4. Location

Continent: Mideast

Region: Mideast Africa

Country: Morocco

5. Actors: Morocco, Polasario, Algeria

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Habitat

The landscape of Western Sahara by itself does not have much to offer, other than sandy dunes, a desert climate and arid soil. Other than subsistence farming, most food is imported. Yet, the territory is blessed with natural resources, some proven and others not yet exploited. In 1961, Spain discovered high grade phosphate deposits at Bu Craa. The phosphate is particularly valuable because of its high quality and location less than 20 feet below the surface. During the last full year of production at Bu Craa (1975), the Spanish extracted some 5.6 million tons of raw phosphate. Today, Western Sahara's phosphate deposits are the second largest (after Morocco) in the world. Fishing is another valuable resource. The oceans off the 2,000 km coastline stretching from northern Morocco to southern Mauritania have an abundance of fish. Western Sahara alone has 1,100 km of coast. The Spanish also discovered iron ore deposits, estimated at 70 million tons, and traces of oil and uranium. Pastoral nomadism, fishing and phosphate mining are the principle sources of income for the population. The Moroccan government controls Western Saharan trade and economic activities.

7. Type of Habitat: Dry

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Morocco        Sahara         Spanish Sahara Conflict

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

Although Moroccan troops remain in Western Sahara, military conflict is not high. In the past, the POLISARIO launched military attacks first against the Spanish, then against Moroccan/Mauritanian coalition forces and then against the Moroccan army. Rabat suffered hundreds of casualties in a battle at the Guelta Zemmur outpost in 1981. In retaliation, the Moroccan government erected berms (defensive walls), made of sand and rock and buffered by mines and barbed wire, around the northern part of the territory. These barriers eventually covered four-fifths of the Western Sahara and largely curtailed the POLISARIO's military and diplomatic activities. Moroccan armed forces guarded the territory from behind these walls, as guerrilla activities continued sporadically for the next decade. Tensions came to a head in 1991, when one month prior to the implementation of the UN plan, Moroccan troops increased their attacks on Sahrawi settlements and entered areas they had not previously occupied. They also frustrated MINURSO military observers from moving freely throughout the territory as directed by their mandate. Today, ground combat and guerilla fighting has been largely curtailed. However, the former U.S. military representative to MINURSO recently warned the UN General Assembly that unless a settlement is reached, renewed conflict could erupt. Resumption of armed action by the POLISARIO against the 120,000 remaining Moroccan troops (It is estimated that Morocco spends $1 million a day to occupy Western Sahara.) could lead to the spread of conflict throughout the region, especially given the fragile political situation in nearby Algeria.

10. Level of Conflict: High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 100,000

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Indirect

Renewed conflict could devastate the region economically and prevent the extraction of resources. Western Sahara does not have the money or infrastructure to mine the minerals by itself, as production ceased with the Spanish withdrawal. One possible scenario is that Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania (and possibly Libya) would fight over the exploitation of Western Sahara's mineral resources, without developing a local industry. The fight for North African regional supremacy might neglect concerns for the environment and coastal waters.



RESOURCES **********************CONFLICT



MOROCCO-ALGERIA CONFLICT: The Western Saharan conflict is enmeshed in the geopolitics of the region. Morocco and Algeria have been engaged in a struggle for dominance over northwest Africa. Algeria opposes any plan that would extend Moroccan territory and political influence in the region. Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara would have an encircling effect on Algeria. Also, Algerians fear that annexation would encourage Morocco to pursue unfulfilled claims to territory in western Algeria. Algeria prefers a weak, independent Saharan state from which it can contain Morocco and exert pressure on Mauritania. Therefore, Algeria has provided humanitarian support to the Saharawi refugee camps and military support to the POLISARIO rebels. Algeria's support for Western Sahara also stems from its experience with colonialism and its own fight for self-determination.

In addition to serving Algeria's ideological interests, the Western Sahara serves its economic interests as well. The territory could be a transit route to the Atlantic for iron ore discovered in southwest Algeria in 1952. One of the 1972 Rabat agreements proposed a railroad from the deposits at Gara Jebilet to Morocco's coast, and called for joint exploitation of the iron ore. The agreement was never ratified and hostile relations between the two countries make a Morocco-Algeria railroad link unlikely. However, the same railroad could be constructed a few miles further south and cross Western Sahara to the Atlantic. Algeria has an interest in exploiting Western Saharan mineral resources as well.


The OAU originally envisioned the withdrawal of both Moroccan and POLISARIO forces, the replacement with an interim government and a referendum in which the voters would choose between independence or union with Morocco. The OAU faced difficulty in that it had no history of promoting referenda elsewhere in Africa. Nonetheless, the OAU succeeded in mustering enough support to extend formal recognition to the SADR in 1982, marking the culmination of the POLISARIO's efforts to win the support of sympathetic African, Asian and Latin American countries. As of 1990, the SADR was officially recognized by 74 third-world governments (Note: The only European or North American countries to recognize the SADR were then- Yugoslavia in 1984 and Albania in 1987.).

The UN first became involved in December 1985, when it passed a resolution endorsing the broad outlines of the OAU plan. The General Assembly also urged the secretary general, de Cuellar, to bring Morocco and the POLISARIO together for talks in New York. To this day, the UN is still reviewing the situation.

The Soviet Union had an economic stake in Morocco. In 1978, Morocco became its largest trading partner when Leonid Brezhnev agreed to provide Morocco with over $2 billion for phosphate development at a new mine, and $300 million for the fishing industry. The USSR denied playing a role in the Western Sahara dispute, and in fact, the POLISARIO was the only major liberation movement in Africa not to receive direct assistance from the Soviets. Yet when the Soviets needed Algerian support during the Angolan Civil War, they publicly proclaimed the Sahrawis right to self-determination. The Soviet bloc walked both sides of the line, as it managed to vote for every resolution in the UN General Assembly advocating Sahrawi self-determination without repudiating Moroccan claims to the territory.

The U.S. also pursued a policy of neutrality so as not to offend Morocco or Algeria, its closest political ally and economic partner in North Africa. Between 1975 and 1988, the U.S. supplied Morocco with about $1 billion in arms and $1.3 billion in security and economic assistance programs. The U.S. also viewed King Hassan as a source of stability in the region. This alliance between Hassan and the U.S. Administration was strengthened after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Although the U.S. claimed to be neutral, military aid continued to flow to Morocco. In 1978, Jimmy Carter reduced arms sales to $10 million, with the stipulation that the weapons could not be used in the Western Sahara. Yet when Rabat threatened to seek Soviet weapons as a replacement, the U.S. increased arms sales to over $200 million, with the provision that Morocco stick with the negotiating process. Ronald Reagan, afraid of the Soviet threat and instability in Iran, dropped the provision and increased arms sales once again. From 1986 to 1993, the U.S. supplied $300 million in arms, meeting 30 percent of Morocco's military needs. Algeria was not pleased with the level of U.S. military assistance to Morocco, but did not complain so long as American economic involvement in Algeria continued. American firms have been involved in Algeria construction projects worth over $6 billion. In 1979, the U.S. was the number one buyer of Algerian exports, and by 1992, was fourth in terms of Algeria's imports. The U.S. has maintained a close relationship with King Hassan, yet remains wary of becoming involved in Algeria's internal politics.

France supported the POLISARIO, had a good trading relationship with Algeria and gave military and economic aid to Morocco. Spain wished to maintain good trading relations with both Morocco and Algeria. Although it vocally supported the POLISARIO, it never officially recognized the SADR as an independent state.

COLONIALISM: Although Spain withdrew from the territory in 1975, the Western Sahara is still viewed as an unresolved colonial conflict since the UN has failed to broker an agreement between Morocco and the POLISARIO.

ETHNICITY: question of validity of 1974 census and correct number of ethnic Saharawis

RESOURCES: phosphates, iron ore, oil, uranium, fishing

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Bilateral

14. Outcome of Dispute: In Progress

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases


16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Relevant Literature

Damis, John. Conflict in Northwest Africa. Stanford University, Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.

Maren, Michael. "From the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara," African Report (Nov.-Dec. 1984), pp. 32-35.

Pazzani, Anthony G. "Morocco versus Polisario: a Political Interpretation," The Journal of Modern African Studies 32, 2 (1994), pp. 265-278.

Tessler, Mark A., John P. Entelis and Gregory W. White. "Kingdom of Morocco," The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa. Westview Press, 1995. pp. 369-393.

Von Hippel, Karin. "The Non-Interventionary Norm Prevails: an Analysis of the Western Sahara," The Journal of Modern African Studies 33, 1 (1995), pp. 67-81.

World Factbook 1995. Central Intelligence Agency. National Trade Data Bank, Department of Commerce. Title: Western Sahara.

Zoubir, Yahia H. and Anthony G. Pazzanita. "The United Nations' Failure in Resolving the Western Sahara Conflict," Middle East Journal 49, 4 (Autumn 1995), pp. 614-628.

Relevant Web Sites

December, 1997