Western Sahara is a disputed territory on the northwest coast and in the Maghreb region of North and West Africa. About 20% of the territory is controlled by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, while the remaining 80% of the territory is occupied and administered by neighboring Morocco. Its surface area amounts to 266,000 square kilometres (103,000 sq mi). It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands. The population is estimated at just over 500,000, of which nearly 40% live in Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara.
Occupied by Spain until 1975, Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963 after a Moroccan demand. It is the most populous territory on that list, and by far the largest in area. In 1965, the United Nations General Assembly adopted its first resolution on Western Sahara, asking Spain to decolonize the territory. One year later, a new resolution was passed by the General Assembly requesting that a referendum be held by Spain on self-determination. In 1975, Spain relinquished the administrative control of the territory to a joint administration by Morocco (which had formally claimed the territory since 1957) and Mauritania. A war erupted between those countries and a Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government in exile in Tindouf, Algeria. Mauritania withdrew its claims in 1979, and Morocco eventually secured de facto control of most of the territory, including all the major cities and natural resources. The United Nations considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and maintains that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination.
Since a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire agreement in 1991, two-thirds of the territory (including most of the Atlantic coastline—the only part of the coast outside the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall is the extreme south, including the Ras Nouadhibou peninsula) has been administered by the Moroccan government, with tacit support from France and the United States, and the remainder by the SADR, backed by Algeria. Internationally, countries such as Russia have taken a generally ambiguous and neutral position on each side’s claims, and have pressed both parties to agree on a peaceful resolution. Both Morocco and Polisario have sought to boost their claims by accumulating formal recognition, especially from African, Asian, and Latin American states in the developing world. The Polisario Front has won formal recognition for SADR from 46 states, and was extended membership in the African Union. Morocco has won support for its position from several African governments and from most of the Muslim world and Arab League. In both instances, recognitions have, over the past two decades, been extended and withdrawn back and forth, depending on the development of relations with Morocco.
Until 2017, no other member state of the United Nations had ever officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over parts of Western Sahara. In 2020, the United States recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Moroccan normalization of relations with Israel.
In 1984, the African Union‘s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as one of its full members, with the same status as Morocco, and Morocco protested by suspending its membership to the OAU. Morocco was readmitted in the African Union on 30 January 2017 by ensuring that the conflicting claims between Morocco and the SADR would be solved peacefully and stopping the extension of its exclusive military control by building additional walls. Until their conflict is resolved, the African Union has not issued any formal statement about the border separating the sovereign territories of Morocco and the SADR in Western Sahara. Instead, the African Union participates with the United Nations mission, in order to maintain a ceasefire and reach a peace agreement between its two members. The African Union provides peacekeeping contingent to the UN mission which is deployed to control a buffer zone near the de facto border of walls built by Morocco within Western Sahara.