Lying in the northwest corner of Africa, Morocco is dominated by the Atlas Mountains, which separate the fertile coastal regions from the harsh Sahara. The high mountains helped protect Morocco from European colonialism until 1912. From 1912 to 1956 the country was divided into French and Spanish zones—two small Spanish enclaves remain, Ceuta and Melilla. Mosques, minarets, and bazaars typify Morocco, 99 percent of whose inhabitants are Muslims. King Mohammed VI, who has ruled since 1999, claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Morocco today is one of only three kingdoms left on the continent of Africa—the others, Lesotho and Swaziland, are small, southern African countries.
Most Moroccans live in cities such as Fez, Casablanca, and Marrakech, on the coastal plain. Although rural people are crowding into cities, Morocco remains primarily a nation of farmers. Many Moroccans emigrate to Spain and other European Union countries for better economic opportunities. Drought, unemployment, and dispute over control of phosphate-rich Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) have taxed the country. In spite of a 1991 UN-supervised ceasefire, sporadic warfare continues between the Moroccan Army and Algerian-backed Polisario (the Western Sahara independence movement based in Tindouf, Algeria). Moroccan forces built a 2,500 kilometer (1,500 mile) sand wall to keep Polisario fighters out. A UN-sponsored referendum of Western Sahara residents is now planned to determine the status of the area, but disputes regarding the referendum remain unresolved.