Western Sahara is located on the northwest coast of North and West Africa in the Maghreb region. This disputed territory is partially occupied by Morocco and partially controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. With a population of 538,000 and more than 103,000 square miles of land, Western Sahara is one of the world's most sparsely populated areas with just 5 people per square mile (2/sq km).
Demographic information for Western Sahara is notoriously prone to errors. The last official census in the territory was in 1970 and this was done by colonial Spain and is therefore considered unreliable due to the territory's large nomadic groups. Since the Moroccan state sponsored settlement plans to bring Moroccans into the Moroccan-occupied region of Western Sahara, it's believed Moroccan settlers account for two-thirds of Western Sahara's total population.
The indigenous people of Western Sahara are called the Sahrawis or "Southern Berbers." These Berber- or Hassaniya-speaking tribes are of Berber or mixed Berber-Arab heritage and live a traditional nomadic lifestyle. A Spanish census in the 1970s claimed 74,000 Sahrawis in Western Sahara but this number was likely very low as it's difficult to accurately count nomadic people.
The parts of the territory controlled by the Polisario are mostly barren with a low population estimated at 30,000, mostly made up of nomads who herd camels. The largest city in Western Sahara is Laayoune where almost 40% of the population live. The city is administered by Morocco and it was founded by a Spanish colonizer and designated by Spain in 1940 as Spanish Sahara's capital. The primary religion in Western Sahara is Sunni Islam which accounts for 99.9% of the population. There were nearly 20,000 Roman Catholics in the territory before 1975 but almost none remain.
Western Sahara has had a complicated history. In the 8th century, the region was inhabited by Berber-speaking people who merged with migrating Beni Ḥassān Arab tribes. It was during this time that Islam arrived in the region.
Spain developed an interest in the region for use as a port in the slave trade although economic activity on the coast turned to commercial fishing in the 1700s. When the Berlin Conference in 1884 led to an agreement among colonial powers in Europe to divide spheres of influence in the African continent, Spain took control of Western Sahara and created a colony. It was administered by Spanish Morocco until after WWII. Decolonization after WWII allowed many former sub-Saharan and North African regions to gain independence although Spanish decolonization was slow. It wasn't until the 1970s that Spain promised a referendum on Western Saharan independence.
During this time, Mauritania and Morocco argued that Western Sahara was created artificially from their territories. Morocco also claimed two provinces in neighboring Algeria. The UN tried to settle disputes by acknowledging Western Sahara's historical ties with Mauritania and Morocco but determining there wasn't enough proof of sovereignty over the territory when the Spanish colonized. Spain terminated its presence in the area. Mauritania took control of the southern third region and Morocco took control of the northern two-thirds of the territories. The Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, resisted the annexations which led to war. Mauritania withdrew from the region. The legal status and sovereignty over the territory remains disputed 40 years later and it's still considered a "non-self-governing territory" by the UN.