Western Sahara (US , UK / /, Arabic: الصحراء الغربية Aṣ-Ṣaḥrā’ al-Gharbīyah, Spanish: Sahara Occidental) is an occupied 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 is estimated at just over 500,000, many of whom live in El Aaiún (also called Laâyoune), the largest city in Western Sahara.
A colony of Spain since 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. 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 Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) (exiled government 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, most of the territory (including the entire 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 82 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. As of 2006[update], no other member state of the United Nations has recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.