In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Western Sahara

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Dictionaries
  • Sahrawi Nationalism and Sadr
  • WAR (1975–1991)
  • International Relations
  • International Rights and Self-Determination Referendum
  • Human Rights
  • Humanitarian Cooperation and Pro-Sahrawi Militancy
  • Economy
  • Flora and Fauna
  • Literature
  • Essays on Poetry

African Studies Western Sahara
Francesco Correale
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0181


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.

General Overviews

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).

    DOI: 10.4000/emam.739

    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

    DOI: 10.3406/remm.1984.2025

    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.

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