You may or you may not have heard about “Western Sahara”, but if you consult Google Maps or any other modern atlas, you will notice this region clearly identified in the southern end of Morocco. “Western Sahara” is not an actual country, as indicated by the lack of a political boundary between this region and Morocco, but it isn’t totally under the control of Morocco either. It is a disputed region with a complex, war-torn history, and like many other disputed regions in the world, it has a highly militarized zone at the center of which runs a 2,700 km-long sand wall called the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall, or the Moroccan Wall, in short.
Unlike other notorious barriers in the world, the Moroccan Wall is rarely in the news and is little discussed outside of Africa. The existence of this wall has been buried in the desert, along with the 40-year-old plight of the Sahrawi people the Moroccan Wall has kept divided.
Western Sahara was under Spanish occupation until 1975. After Spain relinquished control over the territory, Morocco and Mauritania each moved in and divided the territory between themselves, ignoring the wishes of the indigenous Saharawi inhabitants which had been demanding independence since the 1960s. In 1976, the Saharawis formed a rebel national liberation movement called Polisario Front aiming to end foreign presence in the Western Sahara. They declared Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent state and war broke out. In 1979, Mauritania withdrew but Morocco kept occupation of the area.
Around this time, Morocco began building a huge 2,700-km-long sand-berm dividing the territory longitudinally into two regions. The western side is occupied by Morocco, while the eastern side, the so-called “free zone,” is controlled by the Sahrawi rebels of the Polisario organization. It is estimated that between 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants live in this landlocked swath of desert next to Algeria and Mauritania, mostly in refugee camps or as nomads.
Hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario Front officially ended in 1991 following a cease-fire, but the Wall continues to be manned by thousands of Moroccan troops all round the clock, while radar masts and other electronic surveillance equipment scan the region for possible intruders. All along the length of the wall runs a belt of mine that has been called the longest continuous minefield in the world. There are more than 7 million landmines throughout the Sahrawi Territory in addition to large quantities of explosive remnants of war and cluster munitions. Serious injuries, loss of limbs and deaths from accidental detonation of these landmines is frequent among civilians.
The United Nations doesn’t recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. They maintain that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination. However, many countries have expressed their support for the Moroccan occupations, countries such as France and the United States.
Morocco has economic interest in Western Sahara. The region is rich in phosphate reserves and the waters are plenty of fish. There is also speculation that there may be off-shore oil and natural gas fields.
However, according to leaked United States diplomatic cables, by Wikileaks, the region might actually be an economic burden for Morocco.
Existing infrastructure is good and cash flow is buoyed by a large military presence, tax breaks for businesses, subsidies on fuel, and a five-year, $800 million investment package from the Government of Morocco (GOM). Still, the territory faces serious economic challenges: unemployment over 20 percent, a rapidly expanding urban population, scarce water resources, and threatened fishing grounds – source of employment for 70 percent of the region’s workers. The Western Sahara’s much-touted phosphate reserves are relatively unimportant, representing less than two percent of national holdings.
The cable concluded that the territory is unlikely to ever be of any economic benefit for Morocco even if offshore oil fields were to be discovered and exploited.