The Western Sahara (WS) is a 266,000 square kilometer area between North Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. In a conventional way, it is divided into two main regions: the northern Saguiat al-Hamra and the southern Wadi al-Dhahab (Río de Oro). Its borders (with Morocco to the north, Algeria to the east, and Mauritania to the east and south) were established by the colonial powers’ endorsement of French-Spanish agreements signed in the first decade of the 20th century. Its inhabitants, an Arabic-Berbers mélange, had a tribe-structure social organization, driven by a hierarchical principle (the warriors, the religious men, the artisans, etc.). They practiced nomadism throughout the entire western Saharan region. Currenty, Sahrawi people are divided into three main groups: those living in the refugee camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf (approximately 170,000 persons), those living in the territories occupied by Moroccan forces (approximately 65,000 persons), and the Sahrawi diaspora. The Western Sahara is the bigger African territory inscribed in the Non-Self-Governing Territories list recognized by the Special Political and Decolonization Committee of the UN General Assembly. It is actually disputed by both the Polisario Front, the nationalist movement of Sahrawi people created in May 1973 to fight against the Spanish domination, which declared its independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in February 1976 and today is established in 20 percent of the territory, and Morocco, occupying the Western Sahara from 1975. After the long lasting Spanish domination (1884–1976), in 1975 the Madrid Treaty was signed by the Spanish, Moroccan, and Mauritanian governments. This agreement divided WS into two parts, a solution opposed by the Polisario Front, who then started fighting against both Mauritania (until 1979) and Morocco (until 1991), supported by the Algerian and (for a time) Libyan governments. At present, Morocco occupies the 80 percent of the area it defines as “Southern Provinces.” The two parties are separated in a longitudinal sense by a military berm of some 2,700 kilometers from southern Morocco to the southern border with Mauritania. The Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara has never been recognized by any other national government. Instead, almost 80 countries have recognized the SADR since 1975. A self-determination referendum for the Sahrawi people has been endorsed by the UN since 1965 and was foreseen in the armistice treaty of 1991, but it remains unimplemented. The UN mission MINURSO monitors the observance of the cease-fire but its task is also to organize the referendum on self-determination.
Many works were inspired by and are focused on the conflict—the war between 1975 and 1991—and its consequences; see also War (1975–1991). Some of these also offer a broad overview of the geography, society, and history of the territory. Barbier 1982 in French and Hodges 1983 in English provide a general historical outline until the beginning of the 1980s. Besenyὅ 2009 in English offers an updated version of a general historical framework from Antiquity to recent developments of the Western Sahara affair. It includes an important section focused on the role of the MINURSO and the UN. In Spanish, Caro Baroja 1955, republished in 1990 and 2009, also offers an important anthropological outline of the Western Saharan society; Diego Aguirre 1988 provides the most complete reconstruction of the Western Sahara history. Mayrata 2001, in Spanish, offers various general articles about the culture and the history. Correale and Gimeno Martín 2015, is a special issue of Les Cahiers d’EMAM featuring multidisciplinary bilingual (French and Spanish) essays on the culture and history of Western Sahara. Vatin 1984, in French, suggests an interesting overview about the Saharan imagination bred by the European culture.
Barbier, Maurice. Le conflit du Sahara Occidental. Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 1982.
Barbier, born in 1937, graduated from the Political Studies Institute of Paris. His book provides a complete synthesis of the Western Sahara question, showing that the origin of the conflict is a clash between different nationalisms.
Besenyὅ, János. Western Sahara. Pécs, Hungary: Publikon, 2009.
Besenyὅ, a former member of MINURSO and military graduate of the University of Szeged, provides a major analysis of the Western Sahara conflict, particularly focusing on the role of the UN mission and its organization.
Caro Baroja, Julio. Estudios Saharianos. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1955.
Born in 1914, Caro Baroja is one of the most important Spanish anthropologists. His book is the result of ethnographic fieldwork in the “Spanish Sahara” from November 1952 to February 1953. He interviewed Sahrawi personalities and intellectuals, detailing the composition of tribe families, drawing maps and diagrams, and doing work in the path of Evans Pritchard. Published in 1955, this work remains a key reference; it was reprinted: Madrid: Calamar Ediciones, 2008.
Correale, Francesco, and Juan Carlos Gimeno Martín, eds. Special Issue: Sahara occidental: Mémoires, histoires, cultures. Les Cahiers d’EMAM 24–25 (2015).
Les Cahiers d’EMAM is a multidisciplinary review centered on urban issues in the Middle East and North Africa. In this issue the editors provide the outcomes of a Spanish research project focused on the memory, culture, and history of Western Sahara. It contains nine essays, eight of which are bilingual Spanish/French.
Diego Aguirre, José Ramon. Historia del Sahara Español. Madrid: Kayededa, 1988.
Diego Aguirre (b. 1927–d. 2005) was a Spanish officer in Western Sahara from 1966 to 1976. He served in the Information and Security Service and in the department of Interior Affairs and was mediator between the Spanish government and the Polisario Front. This monumental and fundamental work is an unmatched reconstruction of the history of the Western Sahara.
Hodges, Tony. Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983.
A graduate of the University of Oxford, Hodges was the head of the Africa Department at The Economist Publications in London. His major work is the result of five years of research financed by the Ford Foundation; it is a brilliant synthesis of the historical origins and the main geopolitical dynamics of the Western Sahara conflict until the end of the 1980s.
Mayrata, Ramón, eds. Relatos del Sáhara Español. Madrid: Clan Editorial, 2001.
The book is a collection of forty texts with subjects ranging from the beginning of the Spanish colonization to the decolonization. It is a good tool for a general knowledge of Western Sahara.
Vatin, Jean-Claude. “Désert construit et inventé, Sahara perdu ou retrouvé: Le jeu des imaginaires.” Revue de l’Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée 37 (1984): 107–131
Research director at CNRS (National Council of Scientific Researches) in Paris, sociologist, and political scientist, Vatin offers a very interesting theoretical essay on the European paradigms on the Sahara. Titles of his paragraphs are very evocative: The Paradigmatic Sahara: The Steps of a Knowledge; The Phantasmal Sahara: The Role of Novelists; Hermeneutic, Fabulation, Revolution.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Achebe, Chinua
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
- Aid and Economic Development
- Arabic Language and Literature
- Archaeology and the Study of Africa
- Archaeology of Central Africa
- Archaeology of Eastern Africa
- Archaeology of Southern Africa
- Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa
- Arts of Central Africa
- Arts of Western Africa
- Asante and the Akan and Mossi States
- Bantu Expansion
- Benin (Dahomey)
- Botswana (Bechuanaland)
- Brink, André
- British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Children and Childhood
- China in Africa
- Christianity, African
- Coetzee, J.M.
- Colonial Rule, Belgian
- Colonial Rule, French
- Colonial Rule, German
- Colonial Rule, Italian
- Colonial Rule, Portuguese
- Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa
- Comoro Islands
- Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville)
- Congo River Basin States
- Conservation and Wildlife
- Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
- Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism
- Diaspora, Kongo Atlantic
- Disease and African Society
- Early States And State Formation In Africa
- Early States of the Western Sudan
- Economy, Informal
- Education and the Study of Africa
- Egypt, Ancient
- Environmental History
- Equatorial Guinea
- Ethnicity and Politics
- Europe and Africa, Medieval
- Family Planning
- Farah, Nuruddin
- Food and Food Production
- Fugard, Athol
- Genocide in Rwanda
- Geography and the Study of Africa
- Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya
- Gordimer, Nadine
- Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa, The
- Health, Medicine, and the Study of Africa
- Historiography and Methods of African History
- History and the Study of Africa
- Ijo/Niger Delta
- Image of Africa, The
- Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades
- Indian Ocean Trade
- Invention of Tradition
- Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa
- Islam in Africa
- Islamic Politics
- Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa
- Language and the Study of Africa
- Literature and the Study of Africa
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa, The
- Mau Mau
- Media and Journalism
- Military History
- Modern African Literature in European Languages
- Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa
- Music, Traditional
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
- North Africa from 600 to 1800
- North Africa to 600
- Northeastern African States, c. 1000 BCE-1800 CE
- Obama and Kenya
- Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa
- Oral and Written Traditions, African
- Police and Policing
- Political Science and the Study of Africa
- Political Systems, Precolonial
- Popular Culture and the Study of Africa
- Popular Music
- Population and Demography
- Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics
- Sao Tomé and Príncipe
- Seychelles, The
- Slave Trade, Atlantic
- Slavery in Africa
- Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Africa
- South Africa Post c. 1850
- Southern Africa to c. 1850
- States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley
- Sudan and South Sudan
- Swahili City States of the East African Coast
- Swahili Language and Literature
- Tanzania (Tanganyika and Zanzibar)
- Traditional Religion, African
- Trans-Saharan Trade
- Urbanism and Urbanization
- Wars and Warlords
- Western Sahara
- Women and African History
- Women and Colonialism
- Women and Politics
- Women and Slavery
- Women, Gender and the Study of Africa
- Women in 19th-Century West Africa
- Yoruba Language and Literature
- Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey