Spanish Sahara

Spanish Sahara (Spanish: Sahara Español; Arabic: الصحراء الإسبانيةAs-Sahrā'a Al-Isbānīyah), officially the Overseas Province of the Spanish Sahara, was the name used for the modern territory of Western Sahara when it was occupied and ruled by Spain between 1884 and 1975. It had been one of the most recent acquisitions of the Spanish Empire as well as one of its last remaining holdings, which had once extended from the Americas to the Philippines and East Asia.

Spain gave up its Saharan possession following Moroccan demands and international pressure, mainly from United Nations resolutions regarding decolonisation. There was internal pressure from the native Sahrawi population, through the Polisario Front, and the claims of Morocco and Mauritania. After gaining independence in 1956, Morocco laid claim to the territory as part of its historic pre-colonial territory. Mauritania claimed the territory for a number of years based on its history, but dropped all claims in 1979.

In 1975, Morocco occupied much of the territory, now known as Western Sahara, but the Polisario Front, promoting the sovereignty of an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), fought a guerrilla war for 16 years against Morocco. In 1991, the UN negotiated a ceasefire and has tried to arrange negotiations and a referendum to let the population vote on its future. Morocco controls the entire Atlantic coast and most of the landmass, population and natural resources of Western Sahara.

Overseas Province of the Spanish Sahara

Provincia Ultramarina del Sahara Español
إقليم الصحراء الإسبانية ما وراء البحار
Green: Spanish Sahara. Dark grey: Other Spanish possessions. Darkest grey: Spain.
Green: Spanish Sahara.
Dark grey: Other Spanish possessions.
Darkest grey: Spain.
CapitalEl Aaiún
Common languagesSpanish
Hassaniya Arabic
Roman Catholicism
Sunni Islam
Royal Commissioner 
• 1885–1886
Emilio Bonelli Hernando
• 1886–1902
Emilio Bonelli Hernando
• 1902–1903
Ángel Villalobos
• 1903–1925 (first)
Francisco Bens Argandoña
• 1974–1976 (last)
Federico Gómez de Salazar y Nieto
• Established
26 December 1884
14 November 1975
• Disestablished
26 February 1976
CurrencySpanish peseta
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Spanish West Africa
Southern Provinces
Tiris al-Gharbiyya
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
Today part of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
(claimed by  Morocco)

Spanish occupation

At the Berlin Conference (1884-5), the European powers were establishing the rules for setting up zones of influence or protection in Africa, and Spain declared 'a protectorate of the African coast' from Cape Blanc to Cape Bojador on 26 December 1884. It officially informed the other powers in writing on 14 January 1885.[1] It began establishing trading posts and a military presence. In July 1885, King Alfonso XII appointed Emilio Bonelli commissioner of the Río de Oro with civil and military authority. On 6 April 1887, the area was incorporated into the Captaincy General of the Canary Islands for military purposes.[1] In the summer of 1886, under the sponsorship of the Spanish Society of Commercial Geography (Sociedad Española de Geografía Comercial), Julio Cervera Baviera, Felipe Rizzo (1823–1908) and Francisco Quiroga (1853–1894) traversed the territory, which was called Río de Oro, and made topographical and astronomical observations. At the time, geographers had not mapped the territory and its features were not widely known. Their trek is considered the first scientific expedition in that part of the Sahara.[2]

On entering the territory in 1884, Spanish forces were immediately challenged by stiff resistance from the indigenous Sahrawi tribes, Saharan Arabs who lived in many oases and coastal villages. The indigenous people worked mainly in fishing and camel herding, and speak the Hassaniya language, a Bedouin Arabic dialect. A rebellion in 1904 was led by the powerful Smara-based marabout, Shaykh Ma al-'Aynayn, was put down by France in 1910, which ruled neighbouring Algeria. This was followed by a wave of uprisings under Ma al-Aynayn's sons, grandsons and other political leaders.

There is some dispute and ambiguity about whether the territory was under Moroccan royal sovereignty at the time when the Spanish claimed it in 1884. In 1886, Spain signed the Treaty of Idjil, by which the Emirate of Adrar ceded the land of the colony to Spain. This treaty was of no legal value, since the Emir had no claim to the territory, but since Morocco had no claim either (at least since the Hispano-Moroccan Treaty of 1767), the Spanish 'invented' a claim which the Emir could, with no harm to himself, immediately cede.[1]

The borders of the territory were not clearly defined until treaties between Spain and France in the early 20th century. Spanish Sahara was created from the Spanish territories of Río de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra in 1924. It was not part of the areas known as Spanish Morocco and was administered separately.

Modern history

Morocco Protectorate
Spanish and French protectorates in Morocco and Spanish Sahara, 1912.

Given such tribal uprisings, Spain found it difficult to control parts of the territory's large hinterland until 1934. After gaining independence in 1956, Morocco laid claim to Spanish Sahara as part of its historic pre-colonial territory. In 1957, the Moroccan Army of Liberation nearly occupied the small territory of Ifni, north of Spanish Sahara, during the Ifni War. The Spanish sent a regiment of paratroopers from the nearby Canary Islands and repelled the attacks. With the assistance of the French, Spain soon re-established control in the area through Operaciones Teide-Ecoubillon (Spanish name) / Opérations Ecouvillon (French name)[3].

It tried to suppress resistance politically. It forced some of the previously nomadic inhabitants of Spanish Sahara to settle in certain areas, and the rate of urbanisation was increased. In 1958, Spain united the territories of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro to form the overseas province of Spanish Sahara, while ceding the province of the Cape Juby Strip (which included Villa Bens) in the same year to Morocco.

In the 1960s, Morocco continued to claim Spanish Sahara. It gained agreement by the United Nations to add the territory to the list of territories to be decolonised. In 1969, Spain returned Ifni to Morocco, but continued to retain Spanish Sahara.

In 1967, Spanish rule was challenged by the Harakat Tahrir, a protest movement secretly organised by the Royal Moroccan Government. Spain suppressed the 1970 Zemla Intifada.

In 1973, the Polisario Front was formed in a revival of militant Sahrawi nationalism. The Front's guerrilla army grew rapidly, and Spain lost effective control over most of the territory by early 1975. Its effort to found a political rival, the Partido de Unión Nacional Saharaui (PUNS), met with little success. Spain proceeded to co-opt tribal leaders by setting up the Djema'a, a political institution loosely based on traditional Sahrawi tribal leaders. The Djema'a members were hand-picked by the authorities, but given privileges in return for rubber-stamping Madrid's decisions.

In the winter of 1975, just before the death of its long-time leader Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Spain was confronted with an intensive campaign of territorial demands from Morocco and, to a lesser extent, from Mauritania. These culminated in the Marcha Verde ('Green March'). After negotiating the Madrid Accords with Morocco and Mauritania, Spain withdrew its forces and settlers from the territory.

Morocco and Mauritania took control of the region. Mauritania later surrendered its claim after fighting an unsuccessful war against the Polisario Front. Morocco began fought the Polisario Front, and after sixteen years, the UN negotiated a cease-fire in 1991. Today, the sovereignty of the territory remains in dispute. Morocco has resisted allowing a referendum to be held, and has continued to offer its people jobs in controlled territory.

Present status

Stamp Spanish Sahara 1924 40c
Postage stamp issued in 1924.

The United Nations considers the former Spanish Sahara a non-self-governing territory, with Spain as the former administrative power and, since the 1970s, Morocco as the current administrative power.

UN peace efforts have been directed at holding a referendum on independence among the Sahrawi population, but this has not yet taken place. The African Union (AU) and more than 80 governments consider the territory to be the sovereign (albeit occupied) state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with a government-in-exile backed by the Polisario Front.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Robert Rézette, The Western Sahara and the Frontiers of Morocco (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Latines, 1975), p. 60.
  2. ^ "Encuentro con Premiados SGE 2007". Sociedad Geográfica Española. Archived from the original on 29 September 2011.
  3. ^ «Opération Écouvillon» : Dernière tentative coloniale pour en finir avec l'Armée de libération marocaine ? and « L’Opération « Ecouvillon » (1957-1958) et la mémoire des officiers sahariens : entre contre-discours colonial et sentiment national en Mauritanie », in G. Cattanéo (dir.) Guerre, mémoire et identité, Paris, Nuvis, 2014, p. 83-107.ération_Ecouvillon_1957-1958_et_la_mémoire_des_officiers_sahariens_entre_contre-discours_colonial_et_sentiment_national_en_Mauritanie_in_G._Cattanéo_dir._Guerre_mémoire_et_identité_Paris_Nuvis_2014_p._83-107

Media related to Spanish Sahara at Wikimedia Commons

Coordinates: 25°N 13°W / 25°N 13°W

1975 United Nations visiting mission to Spanish Sahara

To assist in the decolonization process of the Spanish Sahara (now Western Sahara), a colony in North Africa, the United Nations General Assembly in 1975 dispatched a visiting mission to the territory and the surrounding countries, in accordance with its resolution 3292 (December 13, 1974).

Advisory opinion on Western Sahara

The International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara was a 1975 advisory, non-binding opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of two questions presented to it by the UN General Assembly under Resolution 3292 regarding the disputed territory of Western Sahara (then Spanish Sahara). In 1969, Spain returned the region of Ifni to Morocco.

Catholic Church in Western Sahara

The Catholic Church in Western Sahara is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope in Rome.

Coat of arms of Western Sahara

The Coat of arms of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a symbol created by the Polisario Front, the national liberation movement of Western Sahara. The Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on February 27, 1976, and both the flag and the coat of arms were adopted as state symbols.

The territory of Western Sahara is a disputed territory, claimed by:

Morocco, which controls and administers about 80% of the territory. Currently, the coats of arms of the Moroccan regions of Western Sahara are used in this part of Western Sahara.

The Polisario Front and the government-in-exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR claim the independence of the territory. The coat of arms of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic are used by these two bodies.

Dakhla, Western Sahara

Dakhla (Arabic: الداخلة‎, Berber: Eddaxla, Spanish: Villa Cisneros) is a city in Western Sahara, a disputed territory currently administered by Morocco. It is the capital of the Moroccan administrative region Dakhla-Oued Ed-Dahab. It has a population of 106,277 and is built on a narrow peninsula of the Atlantic Coast, the Río de Oro Peninsula, about 550 km south of Laayoune.

Flag of Western Sahara

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, commonly known as Western Sahara, uses a national flag consisting of a black, white and green horizontal tricolor charged with a red star and crescent in the center stripe and a red chevron at the hoist. It is used on Polisario-controlled areas, while the Moroccan flag is used on the rest of the occupied territory.

The flag is a combination of the Pan-Arab colors of black, green, white, and red, and the Islamic symbol of the star and crescent. On 27 February 1976 the flag was adopted as the official flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). It was slightly modified in June 1991. It is said to be designed by El Uali Mustapha Sayed, the first president of the SADR. This flag is commonly referred to as the "flag of Western Sahara".

Greater Mauritania

"Greater Mauritania" is a term for the Mauritanian irredentist claim to Western Sahara, and possibly other Moorish or Sahrawi-populated areas of the western Sahara desert.

Its main competing ideologies have been Berberism, Sahrawi nationalism, Moroccan irredentism, Tuareg nationalism and Pan-Arabism.

Green March

The Green March was a strategic mass demonstration in November 1975, coordinated by the Moroccan government, to force Spain to hand over the disputed, autonomous semi-metropolitan province of Spanish Sahara to Morocco. The demonstration of some 350,000 Moroccans advanced several kilometres into the Western Sahara territory, escorted by nearly 20,000 Moroccan troops, and meeting very little response by the Sahrawi Polisario Front. Nevertheless, the events quickly escalated into a fully waged war between Morocco and the militias of the Polisario, the Western Sahara War, which would last for 16 years. Morocco later gained control over most of the former Spanish Sahara, which it continues to hold.

Ifni War

The Ifni War, sometimes called the Forgotten War in Spain (la Guerra Olvidada), was a series of armed incursions into Spanish West Africa by Moroccan insurgents that began in October 1957 and culminated with the abortive siege of Sidi Ifni.

The war, which may be seen as part of the general movement of decolonization that swept Africa throughout the later half of the 20th century, was conducted primarily by elements of the Moroccan Army of Liberation which, no longer tied down in conflicts with the French, committed a significant portion of its resources and manpower to the capture of Spanish possessions.

List of United Nations resolutions concerning Western Sahara

United Nations documents related to decolonization of Spanish Sahara, the Western Sahara conflict, Moroccan military occupation, Sahrawi refugees, and the establishment of MINURSO.

List of colonial governors of Spanish Sahara

This is a list of European colonial administrators responsible for the territory of Spanish Sahara, an area equivalent to modern-day Western Sahara.

Madrid Accords

The Madrid Accords, also called Madrid Agreement or Madrid Pact, was a treaty between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania to end the Spanish presence in the territory of Spanish Sahara, which was until the Madrid Accords' inception a Spanish province and former colony. It was signed in Madrid on November 14, 1975, although it was never published on the Boletin Oficial del Estado. This agreement was in conflict with the Law on decolonization of Sahara, ratified by the Spanish Parliament (Cortes) on November 18.

In cause of the Madrid agreement, the territory would then be divided between Morocco and Mauritania.

Overseas province

Overseas province (Portuguese: província ultramarina; Spanish: provincia ultramarina) was a designation used by Portugal to describe its non-continental holdings and by Spain to refer to Spanish Sahara.

Saguia el-Hamra

Saguia el-Hamra (Spanish: Saguía el Hamra, Arabic: الساقية الحمراء‎, romanized: al-Saqiyah al-Hamra'a, lit. 'Red Canal') was, with Río de Oro, one of the two territories that formed the Spanish province of Spanish Sahara after 1969. Its name comes from a waterway that goes through the capital. The wadi is inhabited by the Oulad Tidrarin Sahrawi tribe.

Occupying the northern part of Western Sahara, it lay between the 26th parallel north and 27°50'N. The city of Cape Bojador served to divide the regions. Its colonial capital was El Aaiún (Laâyoune), and it also included the city of Smara.

The territory takes its name from an intermittent river, the Saguia el-Hamra, the route of which runs west from south of El Farcya to reach the Atlantic at Laayoune.

The area is roughly 82,000 km (51,000 mi), making it approximately a third of the entire Western Sahara.

Sahrawi Red Crescent

The Sahrawi Red Crescent Society is the part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement for the country of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in Northern Africa.

Spanish Sahara (song)

"Spanish Sahara" is a song by English indie rock band Foals. Although not an official single, it was the first song to be released from the band's second album, Total Life Forever. It was premiered on 1 March 2010, on BBC Radio 1. Later that night, a music video for the single was put up on the Foals' website. On 6 March, when the Total Life Forever site went up, Foals premiered instrument samplings of the tracks that would be on Total Life Forever in the track listing order. The fifth sample was a synthesizer sample of "Spanish Sahara".

The single was released on 17 April only as a 7", to celebrate Record Store Day. Only 1000 copies were printed and sold through independent record stores. The remix of the song by Mount Kimbie was later available as a free MP3 given to members of the Foals website.

Spanish West Africa

Spanish West Africa (Spanish: África Occidental Española) is a former possession in the western Sahara Desert that Spain ruled after giving much of its former northwestern African possessions to Morocco. It was created in December 1946, and combined Ifni, Cape Juby and Spanish Sahara.

Territorial police force

The phrase territorial police force varies in precise meaning according to the country to which it is related, generally distinguishing a force whose area of responsibility is defined by sub-national boundaries from others which deal with the entire country or a restricted range of crime. In countries organized as federations, police responsible for individual sub-national jurisdictions are typically called state or provincial police.

Zemla Intifada

The Zemla Intifada (or the Zemla Uprising) is the name used to refer to disturbances of June 17, 1970, which culminated in a massacre (between 2 and 11 persons were killed) by Spanish Legion forces in the Zemla district of El Aaiun, Spanish Sahara (nowadays Western Sahara).

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