Large areas in the lands of the world are completely uninhabited and uninhabitable. But, unlike international waters which aren't part of any country, those uninhabitable land areas are claimed by one (or more) country(ies).

Examples (non-exhaustive list):

  • The Sahara desert is traverse by several well defined international borders, and the entirety of the desert is claimed by at least one country. On the other hand, when seeing a map of Ottoman Empire at its greatest, we can clearly see that they did not claim areas deep into the Sahara desert.

  • Some parts of the Himalayas mountains, which are too remote from inhabited village to be really considered part of a country.

  • Areas close to the artic pole in e.g. Canada, Alaska and Russia, which are too cold to be inhabitable.

  • Places wild down the Amazonian forest which are extremely remote to any human civilization, yet the whole Amazonian forest is traversed by well defined borders and claimed by countries.

So why and when did the international law allow countries to "annex" those inhabited areas at some point? Especially back when the technology didn't allow anyone to physically reach those area?


2 Answers 2


You are aware the Beduin have always spent significant time in the desert so it was never truly uninhabited? That trade routes ran through the desert and so oasis ownership became important? You'd have a better argument about the far north than the Sahara or Gobi.

If a country totally encircles a body of water - it owns that body of water. It's not like an ocean. So if a country encircles a large portion of desert it naturally includes the desert within those borders.

Or, to put it another way - if the Ottoman Empire HAD claimed the Sahara - it would have been up to someone else to dispute that claim, and probably back it up by force. The Ottoman's saw no value in claiming sand, and weren't much for drilling oil I guess. And the fact that they didn't claim it doesn't mean that no one did. The Beduin may not have pressed a case for a country, but they sure discouraged anyone else from doing so! And just because that map doesn't label ownership outside the Ottoman doesn't mean land wasn't claimed. It doesn't show political divisions outside the Ottoman Empire in Europe either, and we all know that was claimed!

So why are the borders through the Sahara currently drawn the way they are drawn? Because that is how the treaties were drawn up when necessary.

"Anex"? Please!

Countries have always claimed land when it suited their purposes. when others disagreed, well, that's when wars begin.

  • The Sahara was just an example - the great North could be another. I guess I'll edit my question to reflect that. Also, you might be correct that someone else did claim the desert area that was outside of Ottoman Empire, but you'd have to back it up with a source.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:05
  • Do understand that the euro-centric thinking of the time of the Ottomans didn't exactly give credence to what they considered to be "barbarian" political boundaries, but even a contemporary 16C map of Africa shows politcal boundaries that completely fill the continent: vintage-maps.com/en/antique-maps/africa/… Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:25
  • And, for the North, bear in mind that although all atlas maps show the northern Islands above Canada to be claimed by Canada - the US, for example, has never accepted that claim and considers all of the arctic to therfor to be International waters. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:27
  • 1
    I should however, correct my comments on the Beduin who were largely restricted to the Arabian peninsula. The predominant ethnic group through the Sahara were the Berbers, and it is their language that still predominantly spans that region - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berbers Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:39
  • 2
    Also, International waters are international because the powers that have the ability to enforce the borders want them to be international. Many of these powers want the ability to transverse the water for trade with out worry about customs or other laws that impact vessels that cross into territorial waters. China has decided to project its borders out beyond those defined by international law and treaties. The lack of push back has allowed them to make these bodies of water (like the south china sea) defacto terratorial waters. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 16:36

The largest desert in the world is an international area with no national claims recognized.


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