Map of Western Sahara
The Western Sahara is a disputed territory in North Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Its surface area amounts to 266,000 square kilometres (103,000 sq mi). It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands. The population of the territory is estimated at just over 500,000, over half of whom live in El Aaiun, the largest city in Western Sahara (also called Laayoune).
A Spanish colony since the late 19th century, the Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963. 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 Spain to organise a referendum 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 the Sahrawi national liberation movement Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) (exiled government in Tindouf, Algeria). Following the withdrawal of Mauritania in 1979, Morocco eventually secured effective control of most of the territory, including all the major cities and natural resources.
Since a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire agreement in 1991, most of the territory (including the entire Atlantic coast line) has been controlled by Morocco, strongly backed by France, and the remainder by the SADR, strongly backed by Algeria. Internationally, major powers such as the United States and 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 81 states, and was extended membership in the African Union, while Morocco has won recognition or support for its position from several African governments and from most of the Arab League. In both instances, recognitions have over the past two decades been extended and withdrawn according to changing international trends.