Western Sahara, which consists almost entirely of desert, is extremely sparsely populated. Data on the size and structure of the population are uncertain due to past conflicts and since almost half of the indigenous population since 1976 have moved to mainly Algeria, where they live in refugee camps. By the time the Moroccan occupation began, at least 270,000 Moroccans had immigrated by 2010. In the same year, population growth was 3.2%.
The residents of Western Sahara call themselves Sahrawis (‘desert residents’) and are predominantly Arabs and Arabized Berbers who speak Hassaniya Arabic dialects. However, Berber languages are still spoken by northern tribal groups. Traditionally, the tribally organized Sahrawis have fed themselves as nomadic herdsmen.
Islam is the second most dominant (just over 99% in 2010) religion in Western Sahara. The majority are Sunnis and belong to the Malikite legal tradition. One feature of Islam in Western Sahara is Marabutism. means the worship of Islamic saints and the graves they are believed to lie in. The area was quickly Islamized by trade from the mid-700s onwards. The Christian presence is weak. The oldest Christian church is the Catholic, which was established in the country in 1476 and today has just under 800 people as members.
The following Islamic days are national holidays: Prophet Muhammad’s birth, Id al-fitr, Id al-adha and the Islamic New Year.
Western Sahara Geography
Western Sahara is a phosphate-rich desert area in western Africa that since 1975 has been largely occupied by Morocco. About a quarter of the former Spanish Sahara is controlled by the Western Sahara Liberation Movement Polisario. A ceasefire was concluded in 1991 and supervised by the UN force Minurso. The referendum on the future of Western Sahara that has been planned since then has not gone away.
Western Sahara, which is on the north west coast of Africa, consists for the most part of flat and barren rock and sand desert. It is one of the world’s most sparsely populated areas: on a surface slightly larger than Norrland, just over half a million people live. Western Sahara borders Morocco, which occupies parts of the territory, as well as Algeria and Mauritania.
The capital of El Aaiún (or Laâyoune) near the coast in the northwest is located only a few miles from the Canary Islands.
Closer to the Atlantic coast, the sterile desert landscape turns into semi-savannah with grass, shrubs, pre-shrunk acacia trees and occasional pines. Fog sometimes drifting in from the sea provides much needed moisture. The climate differences between summer and winter, and day and night, are leveled the closer you get to the coast.
Since the 1980s, the area from north to south has been divided by a 270 km long system of Moroccan fortifications. The Western Sahara Liberation Movement Polisario controls the virtually unpopulated areas east of the Moroccan positions, about a quarter of the entire territory. Large parts of Western Sahara have been heavily mined since the 1975–1991 war.