|Currency||Moroccan Dirham (MAD) in Morocco-controlled regions; elsewhere Algerian dinar (DZD), Mauritanian ouguiya (MRO), or Sahrawi peseta (EHP, non-circulating, pegged at €1=EHP166.386)|
|Population||513,000 (2009 estimate)|
|Electricity||220V/50Hz (C & E plugs)|
Western Sahara is an area in North Africa bordering the Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco. Its governance is disputed between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), but the majority of it is occupied by Morocco.
- El Aaiún (Laayoune)
- Al Mahbass
- Cape Bojador (Boujdour)
- Dakhla (Villa Cisneros)
- El Marsa
- Guelta Zemmur
Under SADR administration
Under Mauritanian temporary administration
For those interested in sight-seeing, there are few opportunities for wildlife or natural formations other than the dunes. The area controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)—known as the Free Zone or Liberated Territories—is of interest to those interested in the political conflict.
While there is a long coastline, much of it is rocky and not fit for beaches or travel. Large-scale fishing and ports are at Ad Dakhla. Much of the territory is arid desert.
The area to the immediate west of the sand wall (also known as "the berm") created by the Moroccan military is peppered by land mines and should be avoided. For political as well as health reasons, avoiding the berm is a wise decision regardless—it's nowhere near civilization and you can lose a limb in a heartbeat.
Morocco occupied and annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) in 1976, and much of the southern portion of the territory in 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal. A guerrilla war with the liberation movement Polisario Front contesting Rabat's sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire; a referendum on final status has been repeatedly postponed.
The Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976, but the country has only been recognized by around 28 states and has actual control over only a largely uninhabited eastern slice of territory. Entry into this portion is only possible through Algeria.
Western Sahara's inhabitants, known as Sahrawis, are of Arab and Berber ethnicity and speak the Hassānīya dialect of Arabic. They are hospitable and known for their elaborate tea ceremonies.
Western Sahara depends on pastoral nomadism, fishing, and phosphate mining as the principal sources of income for the population. The territory lacks sufficient rainfall for sustainable agricultural production, and most of the food for the urban population must be imported. Virtually all trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government. Moroccan energy interests in 2001 signed contracts to explore for oil off the coast of Western Sahara, a move that has angered Polisario and international observers. Incomes and standards of living in Western Sahara are substantially below the Moroccan level.
Western Sahara is a hot, dry desert; consequently, rain is rare, but flash floods occasionally occur. Cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew. There is very little water in the ground. This coupled with a lack of water vapor in the air, which in other regions acts as a greenhouse gas, allows daytime heat to be lost very rapidly into space via infrared radiation. The result is harsh cold nights, despite the very high daytime temperatures.
Mostly low, flat desert, with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains in south and northeast. Low-lying sand dunes cover the territory.
If you are traveling overland, you will find no border formalities between Morocco and Western Sahara. Your passport may be asked for at the many checkpoints on the road south, but will not be stamped, as the Moroccan authorities regard the Western Sahara as part of Morocco.
The vast majority of Western Sahara is administered by Morocco, which considers it an integral part of its territory, so the same entry conditions apply as for Morocco itself. However, independent travel in the region is restricted, and while crossing through Western Sahara while traveling overland between Morocco and Mauritania is usually OK, some travellers have been turned back when trying to enter, especially during periods of political strife.
Official entry requirements for SADR-controlled areas are unclear, but in practice the area is entirely off-limits to visitors: you cannot legally cross the heavily guarded and mined Berm from the Moroccan-controlled side, the land border with Algeria is closed, and there are no legal border crossings from Mauritania into SADR-controlled territory either.
There are currently no regular trains from El Aaiún to Marrakech, though a line is planned. Similarly, there is no train service between Agadir and El Aaiún.
To arrive by car, you must either pass through Moroccan-controlled checkpoints along the border or enter into the Free Zone through Mauritania. The latter has virtually no roads, so driving will be possible only with a 4×4 vehicle with high ground clearance. Several checkpoints through Mauritania are closed and there is a huge swathe of land mines along the berm. Driving within a few miles of it is extremely dangerous. The Sahrawis have been destroying land mines on their side of the berm, but the territory still has one of the highest concentrations of land mines in the world.
Buses are present only in large metropolitan districts, such as El Aauin and Smara. There are direct services from Casablanca and Marrakech to Dakhla (running through Agadir, Tan Tan and Laayoune), frequent services run from Laayoune to major transport hubs in southern Morocco.
The native language of the majority is Hassaniya Arabic, which is mutually unintelligible with Standard Arabic. Moroccan Arabic is also widely spoken, and is the lingua franca on the streets and the workplace because of the many Moroccans residing in the country. However, unlike in most Arab countries, Standard Arabic is not widely understood, and this applies even more for English, so one cannot survive without good knowledge of Hassaniya or Moroccan Arabic. Also the literacy level is much lower than that of Morocco, which is 50%, so you will have to speak rather than write. Some old signs are still written in Spanish. The Sahrawi population living in the refugee camps located in Algeria are over 90% literate, and some of the older Sahrawi generation still speak Spanish. As a consequence of Moroccan occupation, French can be used with a small business class.
- The Saharan desert, obviously.
- Remnants of the Spanish colonial rule in the capital El Aaiún.
The Moroccan dirham is the official currency of the Moroccan-controlled portion, although the SADR has also minted its own pesetas.
Prices are lower than in Morocco, in part due to Moroccan government's subsidization policy.
Traditional Sahrawi hospitality includes the serving of tea to all guests in one's home.
Hot, dry, dust/sand-laden sirocco wind can occur during winter and spring; widespread harmattan haze exists 60% of time, often severely restricting visibility. There are low-level uprisings and political violence which is altogether rare, but can escalate. Occupying powers are likely to evict foreigners in such case.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Foreigners, travellers, etc are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Western Sahara during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
The culture is Islamic but not particularly strict; the form of Islam that developed among the nomad population is non-mosque-based. Political and social displays of Sahrawi nationalism are violently repressed by the Moroccan police and military.
Teleboutiques and internet cafes are not hard to find in the cities, but connection speed may vary from place to place.