Worldfocus discusses Arab demographics with Patrick Gerland, a demographer at the United Nations Population Division.
The views expressed here are those of the Patrick Gerland and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations. The contents have not been formally edited by the United Nations.
Worldfocus: How would you characterize the demographic situation in the Arab world?
Patrick Gerland: Compared to other regions, the Arab world has been experiencing one of the fastest population growth rates (over 2% per year), which has led to more than its doubling within the last 30 years. This growth is exacerbated by early and intense nuptiality and very high marital fertility.
But since the 1980’s, age at marriage has been increasing by about 5 years on average, and fertility has been declining fast. On average, women today have about 3 children, while a generation ago their mothers had 6 or more.
While this progress is remarkable, the Arab world’s fertility in 2010 still remains substantially higher than in Asia (2.4), Latin America (2.3) — and the world average of 2.6 children per woman.
The region has experienced substantial health improvements, and life expectancy at birth has increased by more than 10 years since the 1980s, reaching about 65 years in 2005-10.
The region as a whole has been getting closer to the world average (68 years), but still remains below Asia (69 years). In demographic terms, the most similar region is South-Central Asia, where fertility is slightly lower, mortality is somewhat higher and growth is less rapid (1.5% versus 2.1%).
Worldfocus: What are the regional demographic differences within the Middle East?
Gerland: While in the 1970s the demographic situation was somewhat similar across the region (relatively high fertility and mortality), the demographic changes that have occurred within the last 30 years have not been uniform and have not occurred at the same pace everywhere. These unequal changes have led to a much more diverse demographic situation today than ever before.
At one hand, we find the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates), followed by the Maghreb (Algeria, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Morocco, Tunisia, Western Sahara), which have achieved remarkable reductions in infant/child mortality, and substantial improvements in adult health — leading to average life expectancy at birth over 69 years.
On the other hand, the Mashreq countries (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syrian Arab Republic) are lagging behind by about 3 years of life expectancy.
And the group of Arab Least-Developed Countries (Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen) is struggling to catch up. Life expectancy at birth is still only about 55 years (just above the rest of Africa).
Worldfocus: Does this same differential also exist with fertility rates?
Gerland: A somewhat similar gradient exists as well with respect to fertility — the Maghreb has the lowest total fertility (about 2.2 children per woman), followed by the GCCs (2.7 children per woman), the Mashreq (about 3.0 children per woman), and finally the Arab LDCs, with a fertility today twice as high as that in the Maghreb (on average 4.4 children per woman).
These differences are accompanied by substantial variations between countries in female education and labor force participation. While young marriage remains the norm (70% of women in the Maghreb and 86% in the Mashreq are married by age 30), many of them postponed marriage (and childbearing) until after age 25 (from 26% in the Mashreq up to 48% in the Maghreb). This has led to a widening of the difference in the mean age at first marriage — 20 years in Arab LDCs to 28 years in the Maghreb.
The differences in the timing of the fertility decline across the countries in the Arab region (much more recent in the GCCs than in the Maghreb) –- combined with the very large influx of foreign-born population (predominantly male labor migrants) –- has lead the GCCs to have one of the fastest population growth rates in the world (about 2.5% per year). This is comparable to the Arab LDCs and sub-Saharan Africa (about 2.4% annually) — and higher than in the Mashreq (2.2%).
Worldfocus: What are the consequences for doubling time and the youthfulness of the population?
Gerland: At this speed, the population of these [GCC] countries is expected to double in less than 30 years, while the Maghreb, with a growth of only 1.4% annually, is expected to double in more than 50 years.
As a whole the relatively recent fertility decline in most countries (since the 1980s or more recently) means that most the Arab countries have a very young age structure with about 20% of their population at 15-24 years old, and half or more of their populations less than 25 years old (up to 60% in Arab LDCs).
This situation offers potential for economic development and future labor force participation — but also challenges today in term of education, job training, housing and employment opportunities.
Worldfocus: What are your best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Arab world’s demographics in 2050?
The best-case scenario would be that most countries have managed to achieved their Millennium Development Goals and successfully been able to provide to all their populations with universal access to basic health services and education, as well as to foster a sustainable economic and cultural environment fostering jobs and good standards of living.
Under these conditions, we would expect most countries to continue to improve their health and longevity, and to reach within the next decades an average number of children per woman insuring a replacement of the generations (about 2.1 children per woman). This transition toward a low fertility and mortality regime is expected to provide a substantial demographic dividend during which the cohorts in productive age groups will exceed those in need of support (i.e., children and elderly).
Some of the worst-case scenarios are associated to a lack of change or improvement of the current situation (or even worsening in the case of crises). The high fertility still experienced in some of the Arab LDCs (e.g., Somalia, Yemen, or even Sudan and Mauritania) can lead to a greater population pressure on basic health and education services, housing and food, as well as on domestic labor markets and the environment.
Tunisia is probably one of the first Arab countries that addressed its demographic issues through a comprehensive family-oriented approach in the 1970s, focusing on improving the health and welfare of women and children through changes in legal rights for women, substantial investments in health and education, as well as greater gender equity and female labor force participation.
Countries like Tunisia and Lebanon have reached fertility levels in recent years comparable to France and Sweden (i.e., about replacement levels) which provide them with intergenerational dependency ratios relatively sustainable for decades to come.
– Ben Piven
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