People get worked up over this topic. I hope I have been impartial.
Updated July 2017
Many current atlases and maps, not least Google Maps (left), identify a territory called ‘Western Sahara’. The dashed border along its northern edge gives a hint that there is no actual country called ‘Western Sahara‘. A map (above right) I had drawn for Morocco 3 gives a more detailed idea of how this this area breaks up.
You can can easily travel the N1 highway down the coast of ‘Western Sahara’ and cross into Mauritania. More below.
The former Spanish colony of Spanish Sahara, (left) was relinquished by Spain in favour of Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, ignoring the wishes of the indigenous and largely Arabic Saharawi (‘Saharans’) inhabitants and the Polisario organisation which had, at the end of the European colonial era, been agitating for independence since the 1960s. In 1976 the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared by the Polisario soon after Spain moved out.
Michael Mercer’s 1975 book, Spanish Sahara describes the region’s geography and history, and Skeletons on the Zahara is another good read set in the area. John Lodwick’s pompous and convoluted The Forbidden Coast (1956), is less so.
By 1979 Morocco had annexed the resource-rich west of the territory to which it had long made claims. As a result of that, a war broke out with Algeria (allied with Mauritania for a while) who claimed to support the Saharawi and SADR.
In 1991 the UN brokered a ceasefire and a referendum to decide the future of the Saharawi. MINURSO bases are still dotted around the territory – (a 2014 MINURSO map is here. But by that time Morocco had populated its part of the territory with Moroccans to win any referendum which has been repeatedly postponed since then. Layounne today has a population of some 200,000.
In the meantime Morocco began building a series of defensive berms, spreading in waves further and further south (left – fanack), until by 1987 the current 1500-km long militarised wall or Berm divided the territory longitudinally, like a modern Great Wall of China, The Atlantic side – two thirds of the territory – are known as Morocco’s Southern Provinces. East of the Berm as far as the Mauritanian border is the Polisario Free Zone (PFZ), supported by Algeria which also hosts many Saharawi refugee camps over the border in nearby Tindouf, Algeria.
From Google maps you can see the Berm cut a corner off northwest Mauritania for about 50km (left), so dividing the PFZ into two regions. Not all maps on this page accurately show this delineation, and who knows if this is a former ‘forward line’ of the Berm which is not currently manned. It is almost certainly mined. Whatever, it forces the Saharawi of the PFZ to cut across Mauritania in the vicinity of Bir Mogrein when they want to get from the main north region to the less occupied south. One can speculate that the Mauritanians tolerate these transits as long as the non-Mauritanian Saharawi (ethnically Moors, anyway) stay north of a certain area, well north of Zouerat. Further south one hears the border between the PFZ and Mauritania is respected by the army and police of both sides, although it’s said Saharawi/Moorish nomads seasonally pass over the border and back.
What does this all mean to the desert traveller?
You can easily travel down the all-sealed N1 Atlantic Route in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara to Mauritania (left) with no problems bar a few checkpoints. Fuel is discounted south of Tan Tan, and larger towns include Layounne and Dakhla.
Inland travel is much less common. A couple of roads and pistes lead to mines, small Saharawi settlements, and particularly Moroccan military installations embedded along the landmined and patrolled Berm. Zoom in with Google sat and you can see these installations clearly. Off roaders do travel in this area (well away from the Berm) and there’s even a French guidebook listing routes (right). But the rather dull landscape and risk of landmines when away from well-used pistes puts people off. See this.
The Dakar Rally used to cross from Smara or Guelta Zemmour in Morocco, briefly across the PFZ and into northern Mauritania, but since at least 2002 tourists cannot cross the Berm – formerly with least difficulty along the main piste linking Guelta Zemmour with Bir Mogrein.
A couple of travellers have traversed the PFZ’s southeast corner which is used by locals as a shortcut between Nouadhibou and Zouerat to avoid the Azzefal dunes (left). But as a foreigner, once noticed or arriving at Zug you may be escorted via a couple of UN-bases northeast to Arounit close to the Mauritanian border and south of Zouerat.
In the PFZ you’ll find Spanish more commonly spoken than French and it’s said you can get by with no visa or invitation letter, use Mauritanian ouguiya and buy cheap Algerian fuel.
A 2017 report from the area.