Western Sahara, a territory in Northwest Africa, is a desert land locked in conflict between Morocco, the kingdom to the north that claims it as its own, and the Polisario Front, a pro-independence movement whose government in exile is recognized by about 45 governments. This conflict seems unlikely to resolve soon, as the latest talks broke down in 2007. Covered mainly by desert, Western Sahara is not a tourist destination, but it is rich in natural resources.
Lay of the Land : Unlike the other places listed on AllGov, Western Sahara is not an independent country; instead, it is a territory in North Africa. The control of this territory is disputed by Morocco and the Polisario Front/Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic; the flag of the latter organization is depicted alongside that of the U.S. in the sidebar to the right of the text. In actual fact Morocco controls about 85% of Western Sahara. With an area of 103,000 square miles (about the size of Colorado), Western Sahara is bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Although it is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, consisting largely of desert flatlands, Western Sahara is a wealthy country. Off its shores are excellent fishing grounds, while beneath its deserts lie 1.7 billion tons of phosphate ore and untapped deposits of iron and oil. The largest city is El Aaiún (Laâyoune), which is home to over half of the territory’s 393,000 inhabitants. El Aaiún would also be the territory’s capital, if the Polisario Front achieved its independence.
The US has never had formal relations with Western Sahara. Though the US has a long history of friendship with Morocco, the US has not taken a firm position on whether Morocco should control Western Sahara, preferring to back some sort of future referendum on the subject.
The US has no formal relations with Western Sahara.
Since 2002, less than 10 Sahrawis have visited the U.S. annually
Trade between the US and Western Sahara is minute and tilted toward the US. In 2008, US exports to Western Sahara totaled $91,000, led by vehicle parts and accessories ($36,000 or 39.5%), finished metal shapes ($20,000 or 21.9%), business machines and equipment ($14,000 or 15.3%) and industrial engines ($13,000 or 14.2%). Imports for the same year were a mere $4,000 of telecommunications equipment.
Morocco considers the Western Sahara to be an integral part of the kingdom, hence the exercise of civil liberties and political rights in the 85% of the territory it controls are conditioned by the same laws and structures which apply in the kingdom. Accordingly, ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, and human rights conditions in the territory tend to converge with those in the kingdom. Amnesty International reports from early 2009 allege that Morocco has unlawfully detained Sahrawi human rights activist Chekib El-Khiari and prevented Sahrawi activists from meeting European Parliament representatives during a January 2009 fact finding mission to Morocco and Western Sahara. Human Rights Watch has also protested El-Khiari’s detention. Further, according to a December 2008 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, Morocco uses a combination of repressive laws, police violence, and unfair trials to punish Sahrawis who advocate peacefully in favor of independence or full self-determination for the territory. In addition, there is impunity for police abuses. Numerous victims of human rights abuses have repeatedly accused specific police or security officials of arbitrarily arresting demonstrators, including children, and beating them. These victims were then forced to sign statements against their will that they were prevented from reading. According to HRW, authorities dismiss the overwhelming majority of complaints without collecting evidence beyond the police’s own version of events. Finally, a March 2009 draft European Parliament report calls for the UN mandate in Western Sahara to include human rights monitoring.