The Hindu
June 14, 2022

The Western Sahara dispute and why Algeria-Spain ties have soured


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Morocco has controlled the disputed Western Sahara territory for decades while the Polisario Front comprised of indigenous people continues to fight for self-determination with the backing of Algeria.

The story so far: Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced on Wednesday that Algeria would “immediately” suspend its 20-year-old treaty of “friendship, good neighbourliness, and co-operation” with Spain. Since 2002, this treaty has led to a close partnership between the two countries on migration flows, anti-human trafficking measures, as well as in the economic, financial, educational, and defence sectors.

Algeria will also be banning imports from Spain. This is being seen as an intensification of Algeria’s anger over Spain’s recent foreign policy shift on the disputed Western Sahara region.

In March, Spain endorsed a plan by Morocco which would give limited autonomy to Western Sahara, but still keep it under Moroccan rule. Morocco [seized] the majority of this disputed territory for decades. Before the recent shift, Spain had supported the United Nation’s mandate to hold a referendum in Western Sahara to allow self-determination.

In March, Algiers recalled its Ambassador to Madrid to deliberate over the issue. Algeria had also cut diplomatic ties with Morocco in 2021 over the Western Sahara issue.


Western Sahara is a vast, sparsely-populated desert region in Northwest Africa, stretching across 2.5 lakh sq km. It is bordered by Morocco in the North, Algeria in a small northeastern patch, and Mauritania in the East and South. It also has a long coast with the Atlantic Ocean in the West and Northwest. It is a region rich in phosphates and other minerals and has a lucrative fishing industry on its Atlantic coast.

With a population of a little under six lakh [600,000], this former Spanish colony is home to the nomadic indigenous Sahrawi tribe whose main language is Hassaniya Arabic. For decades, Morocco has claimed control over Western Sahara while the ethnic Sahrawi fight for their right to self-determination.

When and how did the dispute over Western Sahara begin?

In 1884, Spain began its colonisation of Western Sahara and in the mid-1900s, turned it into a Spanish province called Spanish Sahara….

By the early 1970s, the pressure on Spain to vacate its colonies in Africa and the ensuing political climate gave rise to the Sahrawi insurgency in Western Sahara. The insurgency was led by a politico-military group called the Polisario Front, founded in 1973 with the help of Libya and Algeria, which have had historic ties with the indigenous population of Western Sahara.

The Polisario Front – also called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro— waged a successful guerilla war against the Spanish colonialists, and Spain withdrew from the region in 1975. On February 27, 1976, a day before Spain formally exited the province, the Polisario Front declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in Western Sahara. While SADR does not have Western recognition, it has been recognised by 70 countries and is a member of the African Union.


Both Morocco and Mauritania moved troops to Western Sahara to assert their claims. The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria’s diplomatic and military aid, continued the guerilla resistance, demanding their withdrawal.

In 1975, the UN General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice at the Hague to decide whether Morocco and Mauritania’s claims over Western Sahara held water. The Court ruled that there was no evidence “of “any ties of territorial sovereignty” between Western Sahara and either Morocco or Mauritania….The Court reaffirmed the UNGA 1541 resolution that called for the region’s decolonisation and complete compliance with the principle of self-determination.


A United Nations-mandated ceasefire ended the war in 1991, with the promise of holding an independence referendum in Western Sahara, so that the Sahrawis could determine whether they wanted to be an independent territory or a part of Morocco.

The war has forced almost 200,000 Sahrawis to flee to neighbouring Algeria, where Polisario is running refugee camps and a government-in-exile.


The conflict has largely been in stasis since the ceasefire but after an attack by Morocco in 2020, the Polisario threatened to break the terms of the ceasefire, which has not happened yet.

The region has been criticised for human rights abuses committed by Moroccan troops. Thousands of Sahrawis continue to live in refugee camps in and around the region.


While Spain has endorsed Morocco’s autonomy plan, the United States, under former President Donald Trump in 2020, became the first country to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This acceptance was a concession by the United States for Morocco normalising its ties with Israel.