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For better or for worse, Western Sahara’s Internet future is with Morocco

May 30, 2010  »  Business & Web5 Comments

Updated in January 2013.

Lightning in the Western Sahara {by Hugo! via Flickr}

Life is about priorities, and Western Sahara has bigger problems than the Internet or mobile phones. Try political recognition and even national identity. For the past 30 odd years, Western Sahara has been the backyard of Morocco. However, even if Western Sahara gains political independence from Morocco, the nation will have to rely on its neighbor for developmental support. The African Union (AU) is determined to support Saharawi people’s “inalienable right” to self-determination in line with United Nations Charter, but faces an uphill battle. Deadlock has existed for years, and independence is not around the corner. The territory has always had an uncertain fate and control, even since a ceasefire in 1991. In the past few years, however, Western Sahara has become a more of burden for Morocco. Morocco gains little financially by administering half-a-million people across a mostly barren land of 266,000 square kilometers. Natural resources are not lucrative (mining), and it would take billions of dollars to strengthen the non-existent infrastructure. From a business standpoint, Morocco would be wise to let go of Western Sahara and become a partner for development (while earning a small profit in the process). Unfortunately, conservative values and Moroccan politics of tradition get in the way.

In the same vein, the Internet’s future in Western Sahara has always been at the fate of politics – politics which have left Western Sahara’s communications infrastructure and ideology years behind even the rest of Africa. (In fact, the only two areas of Africa lack Internet statistics: Western Sahara and Somalia).

Given independence, how will Western Sahara leverage the proper tools for sustained growth into an information-based society? Will the Saharawi people (many of whom are herders) be ready to modernize their culture? Will the government be able to prioritize infrastructure development and ICT planning? How will Western Sahara prove that it can produce results on multi-million dollar foreign investments?

In the meantime, it is still up to Morocco to oversee the development of Western Sahara’s information and communication technology. Fairly recently (in May 2009), Maroc Telecom secured over $US 1bn to implement a massive telecommunication program which includes running a fibre-optic line through Western Sahara. The plan is to connect an additional 7,300 rural communities by 2011. Such a plan is a step in the right direction, but one must question if Morocco is using this part of the plan to strengthen ties with Mauritania or just to turn a profit. There have been no mentions of a national ICT plan for Western Sahara and we all know it takes more than a cable to make the Internet work.

As a bonus, here are some available facts about Western Sahara’s Internet:

  • Dozens of websites focused on Western Sahara exist. However, they Some focus solely on the political climate, but others speak to aspects of Saharawi culture. Additionally, most viewpoints are written in Spanish or French, but numerous English-language sites can be found.
  • In late 1998, only three nations in the world lacked an Internet domain: Bangladesh, North Korea, and Western Sahara.
  • In 1999 an Internet connection via Spain existed.
  • The Wikipedia page on Telecommunications in Western Sahara lists international phone lines as “tied into Morocco’s system by microwave radio relay, tropospheric scatter, and satellite; satellite earth stations – 2 Intelsat”
  • In 2007, Morocco blocked YouTube after videos criticizing the government’s treatment of the state surfaced. Attitudes are changing.
  • As a disputed territory, there is no ccTLD, although .eh is reserved, but remains inactive due to lack of management ability and disagreement with another applicant.
  • As seen in a YouTube video, Internet access could be had in 2007 via Hispasat satellite (but it took months of preparation).
  • 2008/9: In the Dakhla refugee camp in the middle of the Algerian desert, refugees from Western Sahara have found a way to feel less isolated. Technology allows them to communicate via Internet videowith family and the world. Videos are recorded and then uploaded via satellite.
  • As of 2009, there were plans to build a technical high school with Internet access in Laayoune as well as a middle school with web access in Boujdour.
  • Multiple cyber cafes, including Soaada cybercafé operate in al-Ayun (Laayoune).
  • Respected rights activist Brahim Dahane says harassment by the Moroccan government forced him to shut his Internet café.
  • By 2013, only Eritrea and Western Sahara will be the only two African territories without direct access to a fibre data cable.
international: tied into Morocco‘s system by microwave radio relay, tropospheric scatter, and satellite; satellite earth stations – 2 Intelsat (Atlantic Ocean) linked to Rabat, Morocco
  • http://twitter.com/vankaas van kaas

    Thanks for the information on this topic. I would like to add some. The Western Sahara is divided by a wall, an enormous military defence-structure about 2500 kilometres long. This is very costly for Morocco to maintain.
    Internet access is available on both sides of the wall. On their side of the wall all communication is tied into the Moroccan system, ofcourse. The other side has very little. It is said the Morocco-Free zone has some direct satellite connectivity supplied by MINURSO, the UN peace-mission for a referendum in the Western Sahara.

    The natural resources in the territory are enormous. There is mining of phosphate in Boucraa and the coastal waters have an abundant amount of fish.
    See http://www.wsrw.org for more info on that.

  • oafrica

    Thanks for the information and link – WSRW looks like a great resource.

  • http://www.sandblast-arts.org The Sandblast team

    I was very interested in your article as the internet is becoming a key element and space for the Saharawis and their supporters to gain visibility and attention for their cause. However I wanted to let you know that your information is not entirely accurate. There are in fact some excellent websites that are in English and dedicated to subjects that are not solely political at all. To start there is Sandblast and Artifarity, both of which are engaging through the arts and culture and provide stimulating and refreshing approaches to the issue.

  • http://www.sandblast-arts.org The Sandblast team

    I forgot to mention that the majority of the Saharawis today are NOT herders. The Saharawis are one of the most highly educated populations in Africa and have an enormous interest in the internet. Those from the occupied zones of Western Sahara use it voraciously and as a life line.

  • oafrica

    Many thanks – you've provided some excellent information/corrections and it is great to hear of the Saharawis' interest in the Internet. It's unfortunate, however, that relatively few tech stories from the region can be found online (compared to the amount of press coming out of East Africa, for example). Finally, Sandblast looks great and your mission seems extremely valuable!