THE Sahara, comparable in size to the United States, is essentially a land of minerals. Plants, animals and men, all live there artificially. The vast spaces, the heat, the lack of water and vegetation have combined over the centuries to make it a desert and a virtually impassable obstacle dividing Mediterranean civilizations from the people of Black Africa. Today, however, modern techniques have enabled men to transform what was a natural barrier into an economic and social link between Europe and Africa. Why, how and by whom has this historic revolution been accomplished? My object here is to try to answer those questions.

From the Atlantic westwards to Libya, from Algeria south to the frontiers of Nigeria, the Sahara covers 1,650,000 square miles of what we call the French Community. In this vast area the average rainfall each year is less than 4 inches. What is more, the precipitation is very irregular, so that two or three years may pass without a drop of water, followed by a tropical tornado which carries away everything in its wake. The variations in temperature are among the greatest in the world: a minimum of 21° F. in Tamanrasset and a maximum of 131° F. in Timimoun. For the most part, the soil is composed of sand (pure quartz), dry crusts of marl, limestone and grit, and stones eroded by wind and varying temperatures. In the center is a huge, bare, crystalline mountain, the Hoggar; in prehistoric times, when rain fell in that region, it served as a sort of water tower. Around this mountain can still be found a cobweb of river valleys, dried up for dozens of centuries.

Such are the conditions under which, until recently, a very small population used to live--and live very badly. The Sahara is the least inhabited area on the globe except for the waste regions around the Poles.

The greater part of the Sahara belongs to the French Community and is divided into two departments, directly connected to France, and four new states: the Republic of Chad, the Republic of Niger, the Republic of Sudan and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. The 840,000 inhabitants of this huge area are ethnically either the descendants of prehistoric populations or of former slaves (black race) or of Berber and later Arab conquerors (white race). Their languages form a very confused mosaic of Berber and Arab dialects. Their religion is Islam.

Their mode of life takes two very different forms. Some--chiefly the black populations--live in concentrated groups in oases: the number in a palm grove often reaches 450 per square mile. Their subsistence comes essentially from date palms and the cereals, fruit and vegetables that grow in their shade. Over the centuries they have developed miraculous engineering methods of using the least drop of water and of protecting their plantations from the ever-invading sands. Until the last century these people were the slaves of nomads, lords of the white race, who generally owned the palm groves. The nomads, whether Berbers or Arabs, consider manual work incompatible with their dignity. Living in tents the year round, they lead their flocks of sheep, goats and camels in search of pasturage, which springs up as if by magic in the midst of the desert after a heavy shower, or can be found on the northern or southern borders of the Sahara, where it is a cause of friction between them and the permanent inhabitants. The "great nomads"--Tuareg, Chaamba, Reguiba, etc.--roam for hundreds of miles over the desert every year in search of fodder for their camels, and their caravans traditionally constitute the only means of trade. But their main transactions were in slaves (who were put in chains and taken through the desert from Black Africa to Algeria or the Red Sea), and in rock salt (exploited in the heart of the Sahara and sold to Black African populations too far inland to receive salt from the sea).

In the last century, France put an end to slavery and has also forbidden the looting of border populations, which once was a normal source of income. Salt now travels from the sea further and further into the interior, by river, railway and road, so that this resource is also gradually disappearing. One of the problems to solve in the Sahara is that of human existence itself; for by one of the paradoxes frequently seen in underdeveloped areas, civilization often reduces local resources, while at the same time modern hygiene tremendously increases the number of people to feed.

The Sahara had to wait until the second half of the twentieth century before Westerners, helped by technology, began to have some success in overcoming the immense difficulty of penetrating the desert with modern industry and offering its benefits to the inhabitants.


It was only at the beginning of this century that the Sahara was explored, even in its broadest geographical outlines. Between the two world wars, prospectors saw that the geological configuration of the area gave hopes of important mineral discoveries there, but in practice it was not until the 1950s that there was enough systematic exploration to produce results. Today all the world evinces an interest.

However, as far back as the war of 1914-1918 the coal fields in southern Oran, at the northern limit of the desert, were discovered and put into production. Unfortunately, the coal from Colomb-Béchar is of mediocre quality and occurs in too thin veins to allow a high output. The fact that petroleum and natural gas are present probably means that these mines do not have a great future.

Other very interesting discoveries have been made. Something less than 100 miles south of Colomb-Béchar, in the Djebel Guettara, a lode of manganese has been found. The reserves are estimated at a million tons of ore containing 45.75 percent manganese and 1.65 percent arsenic. The yield could be at least 50,000 tons annually. Some 250 miles from the Atlantic coast and to the southeast of Tindouf, an enormous vein of iron has been discovered in a place called Gara-Djebilet. We reckon that there are two billion tons of ore containing more than 50 percent iron. Over 400,000,000 tons of 57.8 percent iron could be exploited above ground. In Mauritania, a vein of iron has been discovered near Fort Gouraud, about 220 miles from the coast. It is estimated to contain 100,000,000 tons of ore containing 64 percent iron of exceptional quality and very easy to commercialize. Also in Mauritania, the copper-vein of Akjoujt--now working on a small scale--has reserves of some 500,000 tons of ore. It is the most important deposit in the French Community. Finally, we have hardly started to prospect in the huge crystalline mountain mass of the Hoggar, but already we have signs of uranium and probably some precious metals.

Of course, from the economic point of view the most spectacular and important discoveries have been those of coal, oil and gas. A priori, it seemed likely that there was some oil in the huge sedimentary strata which form the greater part of the Sahara. It had to be found, one may recall, in a country of which ten years ago there was not even a geological map. The difficulties encountered in transporting drilling material and in organizing human life in completely desert places obliged us to prospect where there was a very substantial chance of success. That is why the precision of this particular geological undertaking has never been equalled elsewhere. In previous oil history, for example, an average of 1,000 drill-soundings was needed to discover a "Class A" oil field; that is to say, one with a capacity of at least 50,000,000 barrels; in the Sahara, an average of 22 drill-soundings was enough to discover each of the five "Class A" oil fields now known. Let us look briefly at the principal areas where we found oil and natural gas.

On the boundary between the Sahara and Libya, in the area of Edjeleh, the Compagnie de Recherches et d'Exploitation de Pétrole au Sahara (C.R.E.P.S.), whose major capital is French, with a participation of Royal Dutch Shell, struck an oil field in January 1956 at a depth of 1,475 feet. Explorations in this region have so far shown the existence of eight fields of various depths, including Edjeleh, Zarzaitine and Tigentourine. The known reserves of this whole region run to about 150,000,000 tons.

On June 12, 1956, the first drilling at the now famous field of Hassi-Messaoud struck oil at a depth of 10,800 feet in a productive formation 460 feet thick. This oil field, of very wide extent but not yet delimited, is astride the territories of two companies, the Compagnie Française des Pétroles (Algérie), the capital of which is 100 percent French, with the State the main shareholder, and the Société Nationale de Recherches de Pétrole en Algérie, with exclusively French public capital. At the present time the reserves of the Hassi-Messaoud oil field total 500,000,000 tons.

More recently, in the region of Laghouat, oil was discovered at Bordj Nili; the potentialities on this northern border of the Saharan platform are important. Finally, some 50 miles south of Hassi-Messaoud at El Gassi, the Société Nationale des Pétroles d'Aquitaine, the capital of which is almost entirely French, with the majority owned by the State, discovered an oil field which yielded 10,600 cubic feet the first day. Following this promising result, three new drill-soundings to take place before the end of 1959 will help establish the importance of this field.

As for natural gas, the first important reserves were discovered in March 1954 in Djebel Berga, near In-Salah. Unfortunately, because this field is 625 miles from the coast, its exploitation is impossible for the time being. As a matter of fact, enormous and more accessible gas reserves have been discovered in the northern part of the Sahara. In Hassi-Messaoud itself, each ton of oil yields over 7,000 cubic feet of gas. Predictions for the near future are an annual output of 10,000,000 tons of petroleum in Hassi-Messaoud, plus 70.6 billion cubic feet of gas. Of course, the gas will be used first. Finally and most important of all, a great field of humid gas has been discovered in Hassi-R'Mel, in the region of Ghardaïa. The proven reserves in this pocket of unknown size amount now to almost 30,000 billion cubic feet and will probably far exceed this figure. (Incidentally a cubic foot of this gas produces 335,500 calories, which is the equivalent of three and a half pounds of coal.)

All these discoveries result from a very incomplete exploration of the wealth in the Saharan subsoil. The total wealth will be known only after further and more accurate investigation.


The first technical problem to be confronted, once petroleum and gas have been discovered, is obviously how to transport them to the market. And here an official of the French Government can take pride in the fact that French technology has broken all records. In the past, at least ten years have always elapsed between the discovery of an oil field and the time when it could yield 10,000,000 tons a year. France will get that amount from Hassi-Messaoud in 1961, only four or five years after the first actual sounding.

Extraction of oil is progressing very fast at Hassi-Messaoud. A 24-inch pipeline 415 miles long is now being completed, in spite of the difficulties of surmounting a pass more than 3,600 feet high. The two pumping stations provided for initially will start functioning early this fall. In the last quarter of 1959, therefore, oil from the Sahara will arrive in industrial quantities on the Algerian coast, where we are building loading docks in the harbor of Bougie. At the start, this pipe will deliver 4,000,000 tons a year. We plan to add two new pumping stations and gradually bring the output to 14,000,000 tons in 1962 at the latest. At that time, it will supply half the consumption of the whole French Community.

About a year later oil from the region of Edjeleh will be carried through a pipeline of similar size and capacity running towards the Gulf of Gabès, in Tunisia. Thus without taking into account possible new discoveries, the Saharan petroleum output may be estimated for the next few years as follows: 1959, 1,500,000 tons per year; 1960, 8,000,000 to 10,000,000; 1961, 16,000,000 to 20,000,000; 1962, 18,000,000 to 25,000,000.

The pipelines now being built will have a maximum capacity of 28,000,000 tons, but already we count on doubling them with new installations. In all, with the prospects of additional fields to be worked, we hope that the Saharan output will reach 50,000,000 tons by 1965.

Naturally such important discoveries have involved considerable expense, even though the precise work of our geologists has cut down costs remarkably. Investment amounted to 69 billion francs in 1957, 63 billion in 1958 and will amount to 122 billion in 1959 and 130 billion in 1960.

Logically enough, the State bore by far the greater part of the expense at the beginning; but it has gradually been replaced as private investment was more and more attracted by the results already obtained. In 1957, for example, public capital provided 60 percent of the investment made in Saharan petroleum activities. In 1959, however, the State had only a 9.4 percent share; private investment amounted to 29 percent, loans to 53 percent and foreign capital to 8.6 percent. These figures show clearly that, certain propaganda reports to the contrary, the wealth of the Sahara is, and will remain, in the hands of the French people who discovered it and have brought it into production.

I do not mean to imply, however, that France intends to transform the Sahara into a private "game preserve" where foreign companies will not be allowed to carry on legitimate activities. The proof is that at present foreign interests hold 24 percent of the permits which have been issued to conduct exploration in particular areas, and of the total, several American companies together hold 5.5 percent. This does not take into consideration the research permits requested by Standard Oil of New Jersey for an area of 7,700 square miles, presently under consideration. Permits to search for petroleum in the Sahara are granted in the same way to all companies, regardless of nationality. However, the French Government has seen to it that the capital of concessionaires is always at least half French.

The holder of a research permit who strikes oil may ask for a working permit, and will then get a 50-year lease. Profits will be divided fifty-fifty between the State and the grantee--the pattern generally prevailing. Because our lawmakers want Saharan petroleum, from the time of discovery to final marketing, to be smoothly integrated into the world system of petroleum production and distribution, they have provided that it is to be sold at international market prices.


The reader must certainly have been struck by a double contradiction in my story up to this point. First, the contradiction between the evident poverty of the Saharan people and the latent natural wealth of their territory. Secondly, there is the contradiction between the tremendous quantity of highways, airports, railways, tele-communications, domestic housing, etc., needed for the fantastic development of the petroleum industry and the lack of all such facilities under the limitations imposed by natural conditions. It was to solve this double contradiction little by little that the Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes (O.C.R.S.) was created early in 1957. In the first article of the law setting it up, its essential task is clearly defined: it is to develop the latent natural resources of the region in order to advance its economic and social development, to raise the standard of living and promote the social progress of the people native to the Sahara, taking their traditions into account.

The zone of interest of the O.C.R.S. includes the Saharan departments, the Saoura and the Oasis, which are administered by the central government. It further is authorized to conclude agreements, as sanctioned by the French Government, with the four states of the Community--Chad, Niger, Sudan and Mauritania--in order to establish its proper participation in the Saharan territories belonging to those states. As I write, several agreements are being favorably studied by all parties. Since these states of the Community have complete internal autonomy by virtue of the Constitution approved by the referendum of September 28, 1958, the administrative personnel is completely under the control of each state government.

On the other hand, the two Saharan departments, the Oasis and the Saoura, are French departments, but of a particular type. Instead of being under the authority of the Minister of Interior, as are departments of Metropolitan France, they are under the Minister of Saharan Affairs, who is a member of the Government of the French Republic. Gradually these departments will come to be administered in the same way as those of France. The populations of these two departments elect their deputies (three for the Oasis and one for the Saoura were elected in November 1958), senators and town councillors. Elections of the town councillors took place in 93 communes in March 1958. In 68 of these communes, a mayor is elected; sometimes he is helped by an administrative councillor. In the 25 remaining communes, owing to their lack of civic evolution, the mayor is still appointed provisionally, but as soon as possible he will be replaced by an elected official.

The participation of the local population in carrying out the plans of the O.C.R.S. in economic and social matters is making steady progress. In the general interest, alike of the people and the petroleum technicians, new cities are rising from the desert and camel tracks are being replaced by roads, many of them with macadamized surfaces of international standard. At the same time, irrigation projects have bettered and extended the traditional palm groves, created new centers of civilization and extended and stabilized pasturelands, thus laying the basis for a permanent rise in the Saharan people's standard of living. Also, the number of Saharans working as unskilled or skilled laborers--some, even, as specialists in industrial centers--is steadily increasing as a result of large-scale vocational training. As the number of those employed increases, the amount of wages being paid of course increases also. I want to emphasize that this social improvement will be financed essentially by the royalties collected by the French State on the profits of petroleum exploitation: and the State intends to assign these to the needs of the local population.


The American reader will certainly ask how such a tremendous development is possible when the men and materials involved must cross Algeria, now torn by conflict. How can personal security be given to the prospectors, drillers and operators? Above all, how is it possible before the end of the Algerian conflict to assure the arrival of Saharan petroleum on the Algerian coast at a given date? I have no intention of dodging this problem, which is real, but I want to reduce it to its proper proportions. For as a matter of fact, the development of the wealth of the Sahara is not interfered with by the fighting in Algeria and will become one of the foundations for a future and permanent peace there.

Actually, in the Sahara there have so far been only rare and unimportant incidents due to activities of the Front of National Liberation (F.L.N.), because we have taken the necessary steps to minimize them; and here I must pay tribute to the soldiers of the French Army who efficiently maintain order and security in the region, both for the local people and the technicians.

In spite of the conflict, we have already proven that we can get the oil out to the Algerian coast. Since the beginning of 1958, a small pipeline has carried oil from Hassi-Messaoud to Tougourt, and from there tank cars take it to Philippeville on the coast. The F.L.N. had sworn that no trains would pass by, but they did. Once, at the beginning of this year, the F.L.N. did succeed in blowing up a few cars, but in the last 12 months more than 17.5 million cubic feet of oil have crossed to the Algerian coast. It will continue to flow in ever-increasing quantities. Some of it will be refined on the coast to help Algeria to industrialize. But even more important to the economic development of North Africa will be the natural gas of Hassi-Messaoud and Hassi-R'Mel.

Without waiting for the end of the Algerian conflict, General de Gaulle announced the enactment of the "Constantine plan," the first stage of the industrialization of Algeria. Under this plan a very important steel industry will develop within five years in the region of Bône. Saharan gas will provide the power required to make steel from the iron ore found in the important veins of Ouenza. This gas will be sold to Algerian industries roughly at cost, that is to say, at the lowest price in the world.

The industrialization of Algeria will mean a wider distribution of wages, a rapid increase in the standard of living, and, finally, the end of the social crisis which has been one of the main causes of the conflict. It is in this sense that the discovery of considerable new sources of energy in the Sahara may be said to be an essential factor in achieving peace in Algeria.

However, maximum development of Algerian industries will by no means absorb all of the resources from the Sahara. When the Hassi-Messaoud field is pumping 14,000,000 tons of oil per year through the pipeline now under construction, it will also yield 82.7 billion cubic feet of gas. Hassi-R'Mel can easily supply over 700 billion cubic feet per year, which will be carried to the Algerian coast by the projected feeder line.

Since this quantity of gas will need to find a world-wide market, or at least a European one, French technicians are already developing new methods for transporting it overseas. Possibly it will be taken to Europe in liquid form, carried in specially built tankers of great capacity. Our engineers are also studying the possibility of using trans-Mediterranean pipelines--either floating submerged or resting at the bottom--to carry gas at least as far as Spain. Finally, there are plans to transform the power produced by gas into high voltage electricity which would be transmitted to Europe by submarine cables.

It is not daydreaming to talk about these long-range plans; technology always discovers a way to utilize available raw materials, however great the obstacles. We may foresee that in years to come not only France but also a great part of Europe will find in the Sahara the cheap power it so much needs for rapid industrial growth. If the O.C.R.S. can come to agreement with the Black African states bordering on the Sahara, then the discoveries made in the desert can also benefit other parts of Africa and help them to develop. Thus the Sahara, which for thousands of years was an obstacle between white men and black, will have been transformed at last into a link enabling them to meet on grounds of common prosperity.

Are we not right, we Frenchmen, in saying that--thanks to our technicians, administrators and soldiers, as well as to all the European and Moslem workers who have helped and will help to develop this wealth--we can make a most important contribution to the struggle of a vast region of the world to reach a higher standard of living? And may we not rightfully take pride in contributing in this way to the maintenance of world peace?

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JACQUES SOUSTELLE, Minister Delegate to the Prime Minister of France, in charge of Saharan affairs; Governor-General of Algeria, 1955-56; member of General de Gaulle's French National Committee during World War II
  • More By Jacques Soustelle