Western Sahara is a contested area on North and West Africa's northwest coast and in the Maghreb region. The self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) controls around 20% of the region, while neighboring Morocco occupies and administers the remaining 80%. It has a surface area of 266,000 square kilometers (103,000 sq mi). It is one of the world's least inhabited areas, consisting mostly of arid flatlands. The population is believed to be somewhat more than 500,000, with almost 40% residing in Laayoune, Western Sahara's main city.
Western Sahara, which was occupied by Spain until 1975, has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963, after a Moroccan demand. It is the most populated and by far the biggest territory on the list. The United Nations General Assembly passed its first resolution on Western Sahara in 1965, requesting that Spain decolonize the area. One year later, the General Assembly voted a second resolution demanding that Spain hold a referendum on self-determination. Spain handed up administrative authority of the area to a combined administration of Morocco (which had technically claimed the territory since 1957) and Mauritania in 1975. A conflict broke out between those nations and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi nationalist organization that declared the SADR and established an exile government in Tindouf, Algeria. Mauritania renounced its claims in 1979, and Morocco finally gained de facto control of the vast majority of the area, including all major towns and the vast majority of natural resources. The Polisario Front is recognized by the UN as the legal representation of the Sahrawi people, and the Sahrawis have the right to self-determination.
Since a United Nations-sponsored cease-fire agreement in 1991, two-thirds of the territory (including most of the Atlantic coastline—the only part of the coast outside the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall is the extreme south, including the Ras Nouadhibou peninsula) has been administered by the Moroccan government, with tacit support from France and the United States, and the remainder by the SADR, with Algeria's backing. Internationally, governments like as Russia have adopted an ambiguous and neutral stance on each side's claims, urging both sides to reach an agreement on a peaceful conclusion. Both Morocco and Polisario have tried to strengthen their claims by gaining official recognition, particularly from African, Asian, and Latin American developing-world governments. The Polisario Front has received official recognition from 46 governments and has been granted membership in the African Union. Morocco has received backing for its stance from various African states, as well as the majority of the Muslim world and the Arab League. Recognitions have been extended and withdrawn in both cases throughout the last two decades, depending on the evolution of ties with Morocco.
Until 2020, no other UN member state has ever formally acknowledged Moroccan sovereignty over portions of Western Sahara. In return for Moroccan rehabilitation of ties with Israel, the US acknowledged Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in 2020.
The Organization of African Unity, the African Union's precursor, recognized the SADR as a full member in 1984, with the same status as Morocco, and Morocco objected by suspending its membership in the OAU. Morocco was readmitted to the African Union on January 30, 2017, after assuring that the competing claims between Morocco and the SADR would be resolved amicably and halting the expansion of its exclusive military rule via the construction of further barriers. The African Union has not published an official declaration concerning the boundary between Morocco's sovereign regions and the SADR in Western Sahara until their war is ended. Instead, the African Union joins the UN mission to sustain the cease-fire and achieve a peace accord between its two members. The African Union contributes a peacekeeping component to the UN mission, which is stationed at the "de facto" boundary of Moroccan barriers inside Western Sahara.