Rumours on the oil potential of Western Sahara sound ever more loudly.
The first indications of the possible presence of oil date back to the 1940's. But the Spanish colonial power had other things on its mind at the eve of the second world war. Therefore it was not until the late 1950's that the Spanish government, jointly with the USA, started investigating the area. In 1964, 27 traces had already been identified. But the involved companies got lured away by oil discoveries in Libya and the North Sea.
After the UN put Western Sahara on the list of territories pending decolonization, Franco had a hard time finding companies willing to scan the area. When Morocco and Mauritania invaded the territory 10 years later and a brutal war ensued, the cost-benefit analysis of the oil enterprises pointed out that the political risk did not outweigh potential economic benefits. Continuous warfare and a charged peace process wore off economic interests away until the late 1990's.
But this changed in 2000, when the Moroccan state owned oil-company ONAREP (Office National de Recherches et d’Exploitations Pétrolières) signed two exploration licenses with two big players in the oil world: Total and Kerr-McGee. The 2001 discovery of oil traces offshore Mauritania, which geologically resembles the Saharan shores, further attracted business interests.
Africa's last colony
Since 1975, three quarters of the Western Sahara territory has been illegally occupied by Morocco. The original population lives divided between those suffering human rights abuses under the Moroccan occupation and those living in exile in Algerian refugee camps. For more than 40 years, the Saharawi await the fulfilment of their legitimate right to self-determination.