Laayoune, Western Sahara

Western Sahara is a territory of northwestern Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands. The largest city, and capital, is El Aaiún (Laâyoune), which is home to over half of the population of the territory. Western Sahara has been on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories since the 1960s when it was a Spanish colony.

The Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front independence movement (and government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR) dispute control of the territory. Since a United Nations-sponsored cease-fire agreement in 1991, most of the territory has been controlled by Morocco, with the remainder under the control of Polisario/SADR. Internationally, the major powers such as the United States and the UK 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, from largely minor states. Polisario has won formal recognition for SADR from roughly 45 states, and was extended membership in the African Union, while Morocco has won formal recognition for its position from 25 states, as well as the membership of the Arab League. In both instances, recognitions have over the past two decades been extended and withdrawn according to changing international trends and levels of peace within the territory.

As you can see in the picture above, Laayoune is literally a city in the middle of the desert with nothing else around it for a thousand miles. As you fly into the airport as we did, during the day from the Canary Islands, you see the desert and then all you see is sand for miles until finally a little city just appears with nothing around it. It’s very strange. Landing in the Western Sahara and going through customs was very weird as well. They asked what we were doing here and we said tourism. They were like, really? Nobody comes here for that. I guess they have never met anyone trying to set a record for going to all countries and territories on Earth, haha.
Today the city is obviously still surrounded by sand and is dominated by the presence of the United Nations. Our hotel was nearly full with UN people there to administer and keep the peace in the territory. Although still disputed there has been relative peace since the 1991 cease fire and Mauritania has basically given up their claims with the Saharawi People left out in the cold but now fighting for their own republic in nearby Algeria.
For me, the shocking thing about Laayoune was how clean it was. As an African veteran, I know how dirty and nasty some of these places can be but I was shocked as to how clean and orderly everything was. It was very pleasant to be in the city and we had a nice dinner at a French Restaurant.
Walking around the city is really interesting because you don’t know exactly what to make of it. There is a main square that is completely empty and there really isn’t that much to do here in general. There are bored youngsters just hanging out and the typical muslim men relaxing at the cafes while the women work at home or in the shop. It’s really hard to pinpoint how you feel when you are there but the atmosphere alone is worth a visit. I had never seen anything like it and the UN presence is very strange, it’s kind of what I imagine Khartoum or Port Au Prince to be like nowadays with all the peacekeepers.

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  1. I think you need a new camera, the picture is kind of fuzzy, maybe you shouldnt buy the disposables anymore.

  2. Haha, they don’t exactly fly cushy 777’s with nicely washed and manicured windows into Laayoune, Western Sahara. The windows were nasty and the plane was straight out of the 70’s, we were lucky it flew!

  3. I wonder wherever you got the info that “Morocco has won formal recognition for its position from 25 states”.

    Neither the UN nor any single countries in the world have recognized Morocco’s claims on sovereignty over Western Sahara.

    See for example the report on Western Sahara by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan from April last year.

    There are indeed several countries in the world that support Morocco, but no formal recognitions have been made.

    On the other hand, some 80 countries have recognized the Saharawi Arabic Democratic Republic’s (SADR) sovereignty over the territory, and of these states about 45 still maintain diplomatic relations with the republic.

    Why the city is so empty? Well it’s an occupied city controlled by massive military and police presence.

    People simply do not play around to much when whatever they do can be used by security forces to arrest them…

    Besides, Saharawis do not go much to the newer central areas of the city since that is mainly Moroccan ground. If you had visited the older Saharawi neighborhoods you would see more of a crowd in the evening.

    Saharawis being a nomad people, they are not very active during the sunny hours of day.

    Finally, most of the Moroccans in the city work in the security forces or in the Moroccan administration, so they are busy doing their stuff in daytime.

    I am glad you visited El Ayoune, and wish you all the best of luck on your tour around the world!

    Maybe you will also visit the liberated area of Western Sahara, that is controlled by the Saharawi liberation movement Polisario Front and the refugee camps in Algeria?

    The areas around Tifariti in the liberated area is very beautiful, and I wish you would get to know some of the Saharawi culture. Not only the part that is occupied by Morocco.

  4. Thanks Laroussi for the report, thats very interesting and informative. I do plan on visiting more areas of both Western Sahara and especially the Saharawi controlled areas, I have a friend who was recently there and raves about it. The refugee camps in Algeria are on my radar as well. The political situation is tough on everyone it appears and is especially tough for someone not involved to truly grasp.

    Take care and thanks for the info and your views, that why this site is great when people share their opinions and/or can show their differences from my thoughts, especially because you seem to have first hand knowledge and you are clearly either from the area or have worked there.

    My local history info is generally based on what locals tell me or what I read in the guidebooks or online and may not always be as accurate as someone close to the situation. Thanks again and check back anytime.

  5. Laroussi and lee u make me laughing
    sahara is moroccan before ur own countries exist morocco was controlling all north africa even wat u called spain and portugal now
    laayoune is built by moroccan after spanish colonisation left
    i’m sure you are from people who creat wars between countries and leave them fighting for ur interest
    algeria is terrorist same as spain who are still in ceuta, mellila moroccans cities and canaries our land
    polisario is just group of terrorist created by france and spain in standoff against morocco and algeria who is still controlled by france who give power to the Generaux algerians who were working with france killing algerians civilians .
    that is why algeria got free independance by referendum 1962 .

  6. Mohamed, I appreciate your comment but I am not sure what’s making you laugh as you are not disputing any of the points that Laroussi or I made. It seems that you are making claims and points outside the scope of what she was saying in her comment or what I wrote in my post.

    Based on what you’ve written, I am assuming you are Moroccan and I can understand why you may have some bitterness toward Spain or France as a people. I do understand that Spain still does occupy some enclaves within your country which is very unpopular with your people and you are of course entitled to that opinion and I respect it and also think that Spain should be fully out of Morocco.

    I do not know enough about the current updated situations to dispute any of your claims about Polisario or Algeria. However, generalizations about Laroussi or myself being from a country that creates war just for our interest is unfair, unfounded and untrue.

    Thanks for your views, take care.

  7. Thank you for this, Lee. I stumbled on this on the web, trying to find remote and obscure places. You’ve given a balanced flavour of the place, avoiding the romanticism, criticism or narcissism that can sometimes creep in to such websites. I will be looking up your other destinations!
    Go in peace.

  8. Dr Rahul Roy says

    Lee, as stephen says you have taken a totally unbiased and honest view of the place.It would be nice if you could include candid photographs of people as well because a country really is made up of the people who live there

  9. Hi Dr. Roy and thanks for the note. I always try to take pictures of people especially in more remote places but the problem is that a lot of time they don’t want their pictures taken. Especially in muslim places or places where there are older people. Western Sahara was certainly one of those places and I always try to respect their wishes as I was once chased by a horde of old muslim ladies in Zanzibar for taking their photo!

  10. Mohamed mentions that Morocco “was controlling” N. Africa and Spain and Portugal. I don’t know about Africa, but I do know Morocco conquered the areas it held in the Iberian peninsula. So Morocco is on the same level as Spain.

    When he says “u called spain and portugal now,” he questions who gets to name Spain and Portugal. I doubt he’s worried about “Espana.” He’s referring to “Al-Andalus, the Arabic name given to the parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Septimania governed by Arab and North African Muslims (given the generic name of Moors), at various times in the period between 711 and 1492.” (Wikipedia)

    Note also: “The Almohads, who had taken control of the Almoravids’ Maghribi and Andalusian territories by 1147, far surpassed the Almoravides in fundamentalist outlook, and they treated the dhimmis (non-Muslims) harshly. Faced with the choice of either death or conversion, many Jews and Christians emigrated.”

    And, “The [Almohad] dynasty originated with Ibn Tumart, a member of the Masmuda, a Berber tribe of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.”

    So, Mohamed has some facts right. He’s just not as nice or morally superior or persecuted as he thinks. The Mumbai attackers shouted that India should be returned to the Moslems.

    Beware of selective knowledge.

  11. Lee:

    Thank you very much for the pictures of Laayoune. One day I would like to go there. I still remember a while back when I was a kid when Western Sahara used to be called Spanish Sahara.

  12. Hey Sean and you are welcome. Laayoune is one of those amazing places that needs to be experienced to fully appreciate. The only city I can think to compare it to is Timbuktu for uniqueness.

  13. I love histry , and histry always helps the fact ,so if we go back , to read the books .Sahara is Morocco ,one people,one country.
    I’m from the south of Morocco, and I was lucky to spend 4 years in Laayoun from 85 to 89 that was the best time in my life never felt I was outsider , it was my High school time.
    So when I hear the stories , I just laugh, asking my self if it’s the same place I was , and I still keep touch with old friends,
    I went back 10 years ago, and love to go back , I love my country . Special now I been to 47 country , and worked in 5 from Africa, Europe , America,Australia , Morocco is the best , and I’m looking to go back to birth place for the rest of my life.

  14. It’s a great and very interesting place, one I will definitely revisit in the future. Hopefully they can get everything straightened out although I must admit I havent been keeping up on the situation closely.

  15. it seems when you visit places you just do the superficial look over it! empty places, muslim men spending time in coffee shop while women working at home?? so how does women get money? you missed so many opportunities to meet with local sahrawis, and the real old neighborhoods before Morocco annexed the territory to its Kingdom!
    You should visit it again, being in location without interaction with the real citizen is a waste of time, and watching it in National Geographic might be more interesting! Go Visit iT again!

  16. Hello all,

    Interesting to see the fascination with labels: Morocco, Sahara, Spain, Al-Andalus, Maghrib. I’m in Laayoune right now, and the continued presence of countless UN workers is begining to mystify to locals. But it really shouldn’t – isn’t it in little-considered, quiet corners like this that diplomatic progress and/or dirty-work actually happens?

    For what it’s worth; Middle-class Moroccans up in Casblanca, Rabat, Tangiers don’t want to talk about this region, as they are rightly somewhat embarrassed about their country’s stance here. Insofar as they do mention it at all, it’s to make the point that the Polisario has backed a seriously wrong horse in “siding with Algeria and Al-Qaida”.

    I don’t know if that’s a reasonable reflection, or just politicians evoking a reliable bogey-man, as politicians always will.

    From what I’ve seen, and from the general discomfort, and lack of overt international support for the Moroccan position, I think it’s more the latter.

    But if someone knows different?

  17. Funny thing just rereading this from 5 years ago, I have now been to both Port-Au-Prince and Khartoum and neither is like Laayoune

  18. Hello all,

    Its realy fascinate to see all that conversation about Laayoune, Western Sahara. I’m freight forwarder and it’s very difficult to find a local agent. So what about the economic situation? what about the people activity with the world?

    Thank you

  19. Lee, I realize that this is an old post, but I was curious if you needed a visa to get into Western Sahara, or was it the same requirements as Morocco? Also, when you say “we”, were you with some kind of tour group or just on your own with someone you knew? I’m planning a trip to Morocco soon and am considering a short excursion into Western Sahara.

    • Hi Ryan, I had the same visa requirements as Morocco but there will be lots of questioning when you arrive and things may have changed since I was there in 2007 so do your research but I haven’t heard anything different. I landed from the Canaries as my first entry point into Morocco.

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