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What Should I Know About the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic?

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  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2014
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The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is the name of the government-in-exile that administers the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Western Sahara is a large nation in Western Africa. It covers 102,700 square miles (266,000 sq. km), making it about the same size as the state of Colorado. It shares borders with Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco, and has coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.

Various Berber nomadic groups have inhabited the Western Sahara for many centuries, and the Arab expansion took control of the region in the 8th century. In the 11th century groups within the region formed a unified group and expanded out, conquering much of Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula in the north, and expanding to the borders of the Mali Empire in the south. When this empire fell in the 12th century, Morocco took control of much of Western Sahara. By the 16th century Morocco had repelled the Portuguese from their lands, and regained control of all of Western Sahara.

In the late 19th century, when the European powers divided Africa up for themselves, Morocco was split between France and Spain, with Spain receiving the portion that is now Western Sahara. In 1958 Spain combined all of its disparate holdings into one province, which it named Spanish Sahara. Rebellions plagued the Spanish at this time, orchestrated by the Sahrawi group which inhabited the Sahara, and eventually coalesced into the nationalist movement of the Polisario Front.

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By 1975 Spain was meeting with the Polisario group to discuss a transition of power. At the same time, independent Morocco was laying claim to lands it stated had historically been its own. A UN mission that year visited the Sahara and reported that the majority of inhabitants favored independence, rather than remaining a Spanish holding or being transferred to Morocco. Soon after the International Court of Justice reported to Morocco that the historical holdings of the region did not grant the nation the right to reclaim them, stating that instead the Sahrawi people had the right to self-determination.

At the end of the year Morocco began amassing troops along the border, prompting the Spanish to capitulate and cede control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. The next day the Polisario Front declared the formation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, creating a government in exile based in Algeria. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic first targeted the southern third of the region, which had been ceded to Mauritania, eventually seizing it. Morocco responded by laying claim to that region as well, and amassing troops along the border.

In 1991 a cease-fire was achieved, with Morocco agreeing to hold a referendum to determine whether the inhabitants of the Western Sahara wished independence. To date, this referendum has not taken place, with Morocco refusing a number of further plans, essentially rejecting the possibility of a future referendum. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has so far kept to the cease-fire, but has made it very clear that if no movement is made towards a referendum, fighting may once again be necessary.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is based in Algeria, and since its formation the Algerian government has financed and helped to train them, at times supplying them with arms. Although Algeria attempts to play down its role in the conflict, positioning itself simply as a party interested in self-determination, many observers have pointed out that its actions are those of a heavily-invested nation.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic currently holds less than 1/5 of the territory it claims. As part of the political maneuvering to achieve international support, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has sought and received the recognition of a number of nations, and some international organizations. Most notable is its acceptance in the African Union, while Morocco is the only African nation not a part of the AU.

Visiting the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is not recommended at this time, as violence could potentially break out at any time. Large swaths of the territory of the Western Sahara are also mined, particularly along the Moroccan Wall, making it dangerous to travel overland.

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