With a population of around 200,000, Laayoune (Al Ayoun, sometimes spelt Aaiun in the Spanish colonial period) is the largest and most interesting town in the Western Sahara, though it was only founded in 1940. The city has the highest per capita government spending in Morocco, and soldiers, billeted here for the conflict with Polisario, have been employed in many construction projects. The old lower town, built by the Spanish, lies on the southern slope of the steep-sided valley of the Seguiat el Hamra, with the new upper town, developed since the Green March, on the high plateau beyond.
The population growth – from little more than a village when the Moroccans took over – has been aided by massive subsidies, which apply throughout the Western Sahara, and by an agreement that settlers should initially pay no taxes. The fact that most of Laayoune’s residents are here by choice – only a minority of current residents were actually born here – gives the place a dynamism and pioneering feel that contrasts quite sharply with the weight of tradition that hangs heavy on cities like Fez and Marrakesh. The result is that, although Laayoune has little in the way of obvious sights, its atmosphere is quite a change from that of towns in Morocco proper.