The Western Sahara is a disputed territory in the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the extreme northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Its surface area amounts to 266000 km2. It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands. The population is estimated at just over 500,000, of whom nearly 40% live in El Aaiún (also spelled Laâyoune), the largest city in Western Sahara.
Occupied by Spain in the late 19th century, the 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 the Sahrawi national liberation movement, the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government-in-exile in Tindouf, Algeria. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, and 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, two thirds of the territory (including most of the Atlantic coast line) has been controlled by Morocco and the remainder by the SADR, strongly backed by Algeria. Internationally, countries 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 53 states, and was extended membership in the African Union. 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. As of 2006, no other member state of the United Nations has recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.