Occupied by Spain until the late 20th century, Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963 after a Moroccan demand. It is the most populous territory on that list, and by far the largest in area. In 1965, the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution on Western Sahara, asking Spain to decolonise the territory. One year later, a new resolution was passed by the General Assembly requesting that a referendum be held by Spain on self-determination. In 1975, Spain relinquished the administrative control of the territory to a joint administration by Morocco (which had formally claimed the territory since 1957) and Mauritania. A war erupted between those countries and a Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government in exile in Tindouf, Algeria. Mauritania withdrew its claims in 1979, and Morocco eventually secured de facto control of most of the territory, including all the major cities and natural resources. The United Nations considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and maintains that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination.
Since a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire 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, backed by Algeria. Internationally, countries such as Russia have taken a generally ambiguous and neutral position on each side's claims, and have pressed both parties to agree on a peaceful resolution. Both Morocco and Polisario have sought to boost their claims by accumulating formal recognition, essentially from African, Asian, and Latin American states in the developing world. The Polisario Front has won formal recognition for SADR from 37 states, and was extended membership in the African Union. Morocco has won support for its position from several African governments and from most of the Muslim world and Arab League. In both instances, recognitions have, over the past two decades, been extended and withdrawn according to changing international trends.
As of 2017, no other member state of the United Nations has ever officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over parts of Western Sahara. However, a number of countries have expressed their support for a future recognition of the Moroccan annexation of the territory as an autonomous part of the Kingdom. Overall, the annexation has not garnered as much attention in the international community as many other disputed annexations (e.g. the Russian annexation of Crimea).
Western Sahara is located in Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco. It also borders Algeria to the northeast.
The land is some of the most arid and inhospitable on the planet. The land along the coast is low flat desert and rises, especially in the north, to small mountains reaching up to 600 metres (2,000 ft) on the eastern side.