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Natural products in a pharmacy.

Aside from its rich fishing waters and phosphate reserves, Western Sahara has few natural resources and lacks sufficient rainfall and freshwater resources for most agricultural activities. Western Sahara's much-touted phosphate reserves are relatively unimportant, representing less than two percent of proven phosphate reserves in Morocco.[92] There is speculation that there may be off-shore oil and natural gas fields, but the debate persists as to whether thes

The portion not under the control of the Moroccan government is the area that lies between the border wall and the actual border with Algeria (for map see Minurso map). The Polisario Front claims to run this as the Free Zone on behalf of the SADR. The area is patrolled by Polisario forces,[81] and access is restricted, even among Sahrawis, due to the harsh climate of the Sahara, the military conflict and the abundance of land mines. Landmine Action UK undertook preliminary survey work by visiting the Polisario-controlled area of Western Sahara in October 2005 and February–March 2006. A field assessment in the vicinity of Bir Lahlou, Tifariti and the berms revealed that the densest concentrations of mines are in front of the berms. Mines were laid in zigzags up to one meter apart, and in some parts of the berms, there are three rows of mines. There are also berms in the Moroccan-controlled zone, around Dakhla and stretching from Boujdour, including Smara on the Moroccan border. However, mine-laying was not restricted to the vicinity of the berms; occupied settlements throughout the Polisario-controlled areas, such as Bir Lahlou and Tifariti, are ringed by mines laid by Moroccan forces.[82]

Despite this, the area is traveled and inhabited by many Sahrawi nomads from the Tindouf refugee camps of Algeria and the Sahrawi communities in Mauritania.[40] United Nations MINURSO forces are also present in the area. The UN forces oversee the cease-fire between Polisario and Morocco agreed upon in the 1991 Settlement Plan.[83]

The Polisario forces (of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army (SPLA)) in the area are divided into seven "military regions", each controlled by a top commander reporting to the President of the Polisario proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.[81][84] The total size of the Polisario's guerrilla army present in this area is unknown, but it is believed to number a few thousand men, despite many combatants being demobilized due to the cease-fire.[84] These forces are dug into permanent positions, such as gun emplacements, defensive trenches and underground military bases, as well as conducting mobile patrols of the territory.[81][85][failed verification]

Major Sahrawi political events, such as Polisario congresses and sessions of the Sahrawi National Council (the SADR parliament in exile) are held in the Free Zone (especially in Tifariti and Bir Lehlou), since it is politically and symbolically important to conduct political affairs on Sahrawi territory. In 2005, MINURSO lodged a complaint to the Security Council of the United Nations for "military maneuvers with real fire which extends to restricted areas" by Morocco.[86] A concentration of forces for the commemoration of the Saharawi Republic's 30th anniversary[87] were however subject to condemnation by the United Nations,[88] as it was considered an example of a cease-fire violation to bring such a large force concentration into the area. In late 2009, Moroccan troops performed military maneuvers near Umm Dreiga, in the exclusion zone, violating the cease-fire. Both parties have been accused of such violations by the UN, but to date there has been no serious hostile action from either side since 1991.

Annual demonstrations against the Moroccan Wall are staged in the region by Sahrawis and international activists from Spain, Italy, and other mainly European countries. These actions are closely monitored by the UN.[89][failed verification]

UN sponsored peace talks, the first in six years between Morocco and Polisario, were held in Geneva on 5 December 2018, with both sides agreeing to meet again in a few months for further talks.[90][91]

During the joint Moroccan–Mauritanian control of the area, the Mauritanian-controlled part, roughly corresponding to Saquia el-Hamra, was known as Tiris al-Gharbiyya.

Aside from its rich fishing waters and phosphate reserves, Western Sahara has few natural resources and lacks sufficient rainfall and freshwater resources for most agricultural activities. Western Sahara's much-touted phosphate reserves are relatively unimportant, representing less than two percent of proven phosphate reserves in Morocco.[92] There is speculation that there may be off-shore oil and natural gas fields, but the debate persists as to whether these resources can be profitably exploited, and if this would be legally permitted due to the Non-Self-Governing status of Western Sahara (see below).

Western Sahara's economy is based almost entirely on fishing, which employs two-thirds of its workforce, with mining, agriculture and tourism providing modest additional income.[92] Most food for the urban population comes from Morocco. All trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government (as its de facto southern province). The government has encouraged citizens to relocate to the territory by giving subsidies and price controls on basic goods. These heavy subsidies have created a state-dominated economy in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara.

In 2011, leaked United States diplomatic cables revealed that the territory is somewhat of an economic burden for Morocco;[92] the Moroccan US$800 million subsidy program to Western Sahara was said to be one of the larger per-capita aid programs in history.[92] Supporting life in a territory

Western Sahara's economy is based almost entirely on fishing, which employs two-thirds of its workforce, with mining, agriculture and tourism providing modest additional income.[92] Most food for the urban population comes from Morocco. All trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government (as its de facto southern province). The government has encouraged citizens to relocate to the territory by giving subsidies and price controls on basic goods. These heavy subsidies have created a state-dominated economy in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara.

In 2011, leaked United States diplomatic cables revealed that the territory is somewhat of an economic burden for Morocco;[92] the Moroccan US$800 million subsidy program to Western Sahara was said to be one of the larger per-capita aid programs in history.[92] Supporting life in a territory with scarce freshwater resources is extremely costly. For example, all drinking water for the city of Laayoune comes from desalinization facilities and costs 3 US dollars per cubic meter but is sold at the national price of 0.0275 US dollars; the difference is paid for by the government of Morocco.[92] Fuel is sold at half the price, and basic goods are heavily subsidized;[92] businesses operating in the territory do not pay taxes.[92] All of this is done to keep the balance of Western Sahara's finances.[92] The territory is otherwise thought to be economically unviable and unable to support its population without the Moroccan subsidies.[93] The cable concluded that the territory is unlikely ever to be of any economic benefit for Morocco, even if offshore oil fields were to be discovered and exploited.[92]

Due to the disputed nature of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, the application of international accords to Western Sahara is highly ambiguous. Political leadership of trade agreement signatories such as the United States (US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement) and Norway (European Free Trade Association trade accord) have made statements as to these agreements' non-applicability – although practical policy application is ambiguous.[94][95][96]

After reasonably exploitable oil fields were located in Mauritania, speculation intensified on the possibility of major oil resources being located off the coast of Western Sahara. Despite the fact that findings remain inconclusive, both Morocco and the Polisario have signed deals with oil and gas exploration companies. US and French companies (notably Total and Kerr-McGee) began prospecting on behalf of the Moroccan Office National de Recherches et d'Exploitations Petrolières (ONAREP).[97]

In 2002, Hans Corell, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and head of its Office of Legal Affairs, issued a legal opinion on the matter.[97] The opinion was rendered following an analysis of relevant provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, the United Nations General Assembly resolutions, the case law of the International Court of Justice and the practice of sovereign states.[97] It co

In 2002, Hans Corell, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and head of its Office of Legal Affairs, issued a legal opinion on the matter.[97] The opinion was rendered following an analysis of relevant provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, the United Nations General Assembly resolutions, the case law of the International Court of Justice and the practice of sovereign states.[97] It concluded that while the existing exploration contracts for the area were not illegal, "if further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the principles of international law."[97] After pressures from corporate ethics-groups, Total S.A. pulled out in late 2004.[98]

In May 2006, the remaining company, Kerr-McGee, also left, following sales of numerous share holders like the National Norwegian Oil Fund, due to continued pressure from NGOs and corporate groups.[99]

In December 2014, it became known that Seabird Exploration operated controversial seismic surveys offshore Western Sahara, in violation of the 2002 Hans Corell legal opinion.[100]

The European Union fishing agreements with Morocco include Western Sahara.

In a previously confidential legal opinion (published in February 2010, although it was forwarded in July 2009), the European Parliament's Legal Service opined that fishing by European vessels under a current EU – Morocco fishing agreement covering Western Sahara's waters is in violation of international law.[101]

Similarly, the exploitation of phosphate mines in Bou Craa has led to charges of international law violations and divestment from several European states.[102]

The indigenous population of Western Sahara is usually known in Western media as Sahrawis, but they are also referred to in Morocco as "Southerners" or "Southern Berbers". They are Hassaniya-speaking or Berber-speaking tribes of Berber origin (97% of Y-DNA). Many of them have mixed Berber-Arab heritage, effectively continuations of the tribal groupings of Hassaniya-speaking and Zenaga-Berber speaking Moorish tribes extending south into Mauritania and north into Morocco as well as east into Algeria. The Sahrawis are traditionally nomadic Bedouins with a lifestyle very similar to that of the Tuareg Berbers from whom Sahrawis most likely have descended, and they can be found in all surrounding countries. War and conflict has led to major population displacement.

As of July 2004, an estimated 267,405 people (excluding about 160,000 Moroccan military personnel) lived in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara. Many people from parts of Morocco have come to live in the territory, and these latest arrivals are today thought to outnumber the indigenous Western Sahara Sahrawis. The precise size and composition of the population is subject to political controversy.

The Polisario-controlled parts of Western Sahara are barren. This area has a very small population, estimated to be approximately 30,000 in 2008.[40] The population is primarily made up of nomads who engage in herding camels back and forth between the Tindouf area and Mauritania. However, the presence of land mines scattered throughout the territory by the Moroccan army makes it a dangerous way of life.

Spanish census and MINURSO

A 1974 Spanish census claimed there were some 74,000 Sahrawis in the area at the time (in addition to approximately 20,000 Spanish residents), but this number is likely to be on

As of July 2004, an estimated 267,405 people (excluding about 160,000 Moroccan military personnel) lived in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara. Many people from parts of Morocco have come to live in the territory, and these latest arrivals are today thought to outnumber the indigenous Western Sahara Sahrawis. The precise size and composition of the population is subject to political controversy.

The Polisario-controlled parts of Western Sahara are barren. This area has a very small population, estimated to be approximately 30,000 in 2008.[40] The population is primarily made up of nomads who engage in herding camels back and forth between the Tindouf area and Mauritania. However, the presence of land mines scattered throughout the territory by the Moroccan army makes it a dangerous way of life.

A 1974 Spanish census claimed there were some 74,000 Sahrawis in the area at the time (in addition to approximately 20,000 Spanish residents), but this number is likely to be on the low side, due to the difficulty in counting a nomad people, even if Sahrawis were by the mid-1970s mostly urbanized. Despite these possible inaccuracies, Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed on using the Spanish census as the basis for voter registration when striking a cease-fire agreement in the late 1980s, contingent on the holding of a referendum on independence or integration into Morocco.

In December 1999, the United Nations' M

In December 1999, the United Nations' MINURSO mission announced that it had identified 86,425 eligible voters for the referendum that was supposed to be held under the 1991 Settlement plan and the 1997 Houston accords. By "eligible voter" the UN referred to any Sahrawi over 18 years of age that was part of the Spanish census or could prove their descent from someone who was. These 86,425 Sahrawis were dispersed between Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara and the refugee camps in Algeria, with smaller numbers in Mauritania and other places of exile. These numbers cover only Sahrawis 'indigenous' to Western Sahara during the Spanish colonial period, not the total number of "ethnic" Sahrawis (i.e., members of Sahrawi tribal groupings), who also extend into Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria. The number was highly politically significant due to the expected organization of a referendum on self-determination.

The Polisario has its home base in the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, and declares the number of Sahrawi population in the camps to be approximately 155,000. Morocco disputes this number, saying it is exaggerated for political reasons and for attracting more foreign aid. The UN uses a number of 90,000 "most vulnerable" refugees as basis for its food aid program.

The major ethnic group of Western Sahara are the Sahrawis, a nomadic or Bedouin ethnic group speaking the Hassānīya dialect of Arabic, also spoken in much of Mauritania. They are of mixed Arab-Berber descent, but claim descent from the Beni Hassan, an Arab tribe that migrated across the desert in the 11th century.

Physically indistinguishable from the Hassaniya speaking Moors of Mauritania, the Sahrawi people differ from their neighbours partly because of different tribal affiliations (as tribal confederations cut across present modern boundaries) and partly as a consequence of their exposure to Spanish colonial domination. Surrounding territories were generally under French colonial rule.[citation needed]

Like other Saharan Bedouin and Hassaniya groups, the Sahrawis are mostly Muslims of the Sunni branch and the Maliki fiqh. Local religious custom (Urf) is, like other Saharan groups, heavily influenced by pre-Islamic Berber and African practices, and differs substantially from urban practices. For example, Sahrawi Islam has traditionally functioned without mosques, in an adaptation to nomadic life.[citation needed]

The original Moors of Mauritania, the Sahrawi people differ from their neighbours partly because of different tribal affiliations (as tribal confederations cut across present modern boundaries) and partly as a consequence of their exposure to Spanish colonial domination. Surrounding territories were generally under French colonial rule.[citation needed]

Like other Saharan Bedouin and Hassaniya groups, the Sahrawis are mostly Muslims of the Sunni branch and the Maliki fiqh. Local religious custom (Urf) is, like other Saharan groups, heavily influenced by pre-Islamic Berber and African practices, and differs substantially from urban practices. For example, Sahrawi Islam has traditionally functioned without mosques, in an adaptation to nomadic life.[citation needed]

The original clan-/tribe-based society underwent a massive social upheaval in 1975 when the war forced part of the population to settle in the refugee camps of Tindouf, Algeria, where they remain. Families were broken up by the dispute.

The Museum of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army is located in this refugee camp. This museum is dedicated to the struggle for the independence of Western Saharan people. It presents weapons, vehicles and uniforms, as well as abundant documentation history.

The contemporary history of the territory has experienced long-term international presence and occupation that has deeply influenced the cultural practices of the people, such as languages spoken throughout the territory and its institutions.[104] Spanish colonization lasted roughly from 1884 to 1976, following the creation of the Madrid Accords where Spain absolved all responsibility over the territory and left it to Morocco and Mauritania.[105]

Throughout the nine decades of Spanish colonial presence, one of the primary spoken languages i

Throughout the nine decades of Spanish colonial presence, one of the primary spoken languages in Western Sahara came to be Spanish. The reasons for its widespread usage was due to the necessity of communicating with Spanish leadership and administrators throughout the territory, who ultimately established institutions modeled after those of Spain.[104] The importance and prevalence of Spanish has persisted to the present day, even after Spanish withdrawal from Western Sahara in 1976, due to various education exchanges and host programs for Sahrawi children to Spain and Cuba.[106]

One such exchange program to Spain is Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace), which is an annual holiday program that was created in 1988 and is organized by the Union of Sahrawi Youth (UJSARIO) in collaboration with 300 other associations throughout Spain.[107] The program itself allows 7,000 to 10,000 Sahrawi children between the ages of 8 and 12 the opportunity to live in Spain for the summer outside of the refugee camps. Sometimes children return to the same Spanish household year after year while they are still eligible, and forge strong relationships with their host families.[107] These types of exchange programs that successfully create cross-border and cross-cultural relationships reinforce the usage of the Spanish language throughout subsequent generations of Sahrawi children.

Much Spanish literature and recent refugee studies scholarship has been dedicated to the exploration of the major role women play in Sahrawi society, and the degree of freedom they experience within the occupied territory and the refugee camps. There is a consensus among Sahrawi women that they have always enjoyed a large degree of freedom and influence within the Sahrawi community.[108]

Traditionally, women have played pivotal roles in Sahrawi culture, as well as in efforts to resist colonialism and foreign interference in their territory.[109] Similar to other nomadic traditions on the African continent, Sahrawi women traditionally exercised significant power and roles both in the camp and in their tents.

Sahrawi women could inherit property, and subsist independently from their fathers, brothers, husbands, and other male relatives.[109] Women were key for establishing alliances through marriage, being that the Sahrawi culture values monogamy, with their tribe and to others.[109] Similar to other nomadic traditions on the African continent, Sahrawi women traditionally exercised significant power and roles both in the camp and in their tents.

Sahrawi women could inherit property, and subsist independently from their fathers, brothers, husbands, and other male relatives.[109] Women were key for establishing alliances through marriage, being that the Sahrawi culture values monogamy, with their tribe and to others.[110] Furthermore, Sahrawi women were endowed with major responsibility for the camp during long periods of absence by the men of the camp due to war or trade. Among the responsibilities women had were setting up, repairing, and moving the tents of the camp, and participating in major tribal decisions.[111]

In the contemporary history of Western Sahara, women have occupied central roles and been highly represented in the political sphere.[112] During Spanish colonial rule, Sahrawi women actively provided financial and physical support to the resistance movements during the 1930s, 1950s, and the late 1960s.[109] In more official ways, women were consistently part of the Polisario Front, which in 1994 created the National Union of Sahrawi Women (NUSW).[112] The NUSW was structured at the local, regional, and national levels and concentrated on four areas: the occupied territories and emigration, information and culture, political and professional development, and foreign affairs.[112]

FiSahara International Film Festival is an annual film festival that takes place in one of the southwestern refugee camps in Algeria.[113] At this event, actors, directors, and film industry insiders from around the world join the Sahrawi people for a week-long festival of screenings, parallel activities, and concerts. The festival provides entertainment and educational opportunities for Sahrawi refugees alongside cultural celebrations for visitors and spectators. It aims to raise awareness of the humanitarian crises in the refugee camps, and expose the Sahrawi people to this medium of art and expression.[114]

Highly renowned Spanish filmmakers and actors, such as Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and Pedro Almodóvar have supported and attended the festival. In 2013, the festival screened over 15 films from around the world including comedies, short films, animations, and documentaries. Some of the films were made by the refugees themselves.[114] Art as embodied in film has been a strong and popular medium that Sahrawi youth have used to express themselves, and share their stories of conflict and exile.

ARTifariti, the International Art and Human Rights Meeting in Western Sahara, is an annual art workshop set up in the Liberated Zone and refugee camps, specifically in Tifariti, that brings artists from all over the world. This event led to the introduction of graffiti art to the camps, and popular graffiti artists have come to the workshop to work with refugees.[115] One such artist was Spanish street artist MESA, who travelled to the Sahrawi refugee camps in 2011 and displayed his own graffiti throughout the landscape.[116] His canvases of choice were destroyed walls, which he brought back to life through his art.

MESA inspired other Sahrawis to express themselves and embody their national struggle through art and graffiti. One such artist is Mohamed Sayad, a Sahrawi artist that has been transforming the refugee camp landscape by creating works of art amongst the devastation in camps that have existed for four decades.[116] His canvases, much like MESA, are walls that have been ruined by massive floods in the Sahrawi refugee camps in southwestern Algeria. Sayad's work tells a consistent story, one that draws on his experience of protracted conflict and a life under Moroccan occupation. Sayad's graffiti depicts aspects of Sahrawi culture and includes actual Sahrawi people as his subjects.[116]