, a former Spanish
colony on the north-west coast of Africa, now the disputed region commonly known as Western Sahara
. It lay between Morocco to its north, Algeria to the east, Mauritania to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean
to the west.
Spain acquired various territories in neighbouring parts of Africa over the centuries: some of them, such as the Canary Islands and the towns of Ceuta, Melilla, and Ifni, had been claimed early in the Age of Exploration. They added more territory in the colonial scramble of the late nineteenth century, of which the largest piece was Spanish Sahara, taken from the nominal control of the Sultans of Morocco in 1860. In 1912 they acquired a strip of northern Morocco. These territories were collectively known as Spanish West Africa from 1884.
The capital of Spanish Sahara was El Aaiún, 'the wells'. It was in the northern half of the colony, known as the Rio de Oro, 'river of gold'. The southern part was called Saguia el Hamra, and its chief town was the port of Villa Cisneros. The country is rich in phosphate, and is basically nothing but desert, occupied by people called Sahrawi 'of the Sahara'.
Morocco becoming independent in 1956, it laid claim to all the Spanish territories and also to the French colony of Mauritania further to the south. Spain conceded its Mediterranean coastal strip (except its ancient possessions of Ceuta and Melilla), and ceded the northern edge of Spanish Sahara, a region called the Wadi Draa. But it held onto Rio de Oro, Saguia de Hamra, and the enclave of Ifni. The latter was returned to Morocco in 1969, but Spain held onto Spanish Sahara until the death of Francisco Franco.
The newly democratic Spain sought an accommodation with Morocco and Mauritania (independent 1960), which both claimed the whole area, but they also wanted to involve the native Sahrawi independence movements, principally Polisario (Por la Liberación de Saguia el Hamra y de Rio de Oro) and the Tuareg-led Morehob (Mouvement de Résistance des Hommes Bleus). Morocco's King Hassan II led a so-called Green March into the territory to underline his country's claim. In the end Spain gave up sovereignty unilaterally, without making provision for the future of Spanish Sahara.
In February 1976 Morocco and Mauritania annexed Spanish Sahara, the former taking the upper two-thirds and renaming it Ouededdahab, local Arabic for 'river of gold', and giving the capital El Aaiún the new spelling Laayoune; and the latter renaming its new province Saguia el Hamra as Tiris el Gharbia and its capital Villa Cisneros as Dakhla. At the same time Polisario proclaimed the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which has been recognized by a large number of countries, including enough members of the Organisation of African Unity to allow it to be admitted, and for Morocco to leave the OAU in protest.
Polisario fought guerrilla war against the two claimants, but was gradually forced back by Morocco. The poorer Mauritania could not afford to hold on in the face of war, so gave up its annexation in 1979 and recognized the SADR, but their share was occupied by Morocco, who have now largely pushed Polisario out, erecting huge berms to protect their towns and phosphate mines. Many of the Sahrawi people and independence leadership are now in refugee camps in Algeria. The situation is still unresolved. See under Western Sahara, the neutral name for the region, for recent history and status.