1400s: Nomadic tribes from Yemen invade the Sahara. Mixing with the local indigenous population of Saharan Berbers, they form the people who now inhabit the westernmost Sahara.

1884: Spain establishes a “protectorate” over what is now called the Western Sahara. The colony, Spanish Sahara, lasts until 1975.

1973: Several Saharans form a liberation movement named after the two regions of the Western Sahara: Popular Front for the liberation of the Saqiyah al-Hamra and the Rio De Oro (Polisario Front).

1975: Although the International Court of Justice dismisses his historical claim to the Western Sahara, Morocco’s King Hassan II announces that he will march 350,000 Moroccan civilians into the Spanish Sahara to “reclaim” it from Madrid. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s advice to his staff shortly before the march was “Just turn it over to the UN with the guarantee it will go to Morocco.” The US representative at the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later bragged, “In both [East Timor and Western Sahara] the United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of States desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

1976: Nearly half the indigenous Western Saharan population flees to Algeria for protection, with many joining the independence movement, the Polisario Front. At the end of February, as Spain formally withdraws, Polisario declares the birth of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Today the refugee population is estimated at 150,000 dispersed between four camps near Tindouf, Algeria.

1976-1991: Morocco and Polisario wage war for the Western Sahara; Morocco is able to restrict Polisario attacks by bisecting the territory with a heavily mined and manned sand wall, called the berm.

1981: Reagan administration reverses the Carter administration’s Western Saharan policy and starts massively funding the Moroccan military effort. IMF and Saudi Arabia help offset the costs for Morocco.

1991: United Nations mission arrives in the Western Sahara to organize the referendum and maintain a cease-fire between the two sides. Although colonial authorities had only counted some 74,000 Western Saharans of all ages in 1974, Morocco managed to find some 170,000 voting-age Saharans that Spain somehow missed.

1997: Former US Secretary of State James Baker revives stalled peace process.

1999: King Hassan II dies; his son, Mohammed VI assumes the throne.

2000: In the shadow of the UN’s 1999 East Timor debacle, Western policy makers fear that a vote for independence might jeopardize the rule of the young King Mohammed. Security Council pushes Baker to propose an alternative solution more favorable to Morocco.

2001-2003: Baker presents two proposals that would allow Moroccan settlers to vote in a referendum along with Western Saharans after a four-year “autonomy” period. Morocco accepts the former but rejects the latter, claiming it will not have its “territorial integrity” put to a vote.

October 2001: Kerr-McGee and Total enter into reconnaissance contracts with Morocco for areas off the coast of the Western Sahara.

2005: In late May there is a large pro-independence uprising in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, which is quickly repressed by Moroccan forces.

—Jacob Mundy