THE ARAB WORLD
The Arab countries' demographic mosaic that Europe must not ignore
Population trends in the Arab world differ wildly, but overall soaring youth unemployment is a serious threat to stability. Ayman Zohry explains why this is a problem that Europe’s policymakers, too, must address
The Arab world’s three main regions have very different demographic and migratory characteristics. The Maghreb, Mashreq and Gulf countries have to grapple with a variety of problems that reflect their particular conditions and histories.
Despite rising growth rates in the Maghreb and the Mashreq, both regions still suffer the consequences of over-population growth over the past four decades. These are reflected in the age structures of their populations and most notably by the increase in the15-29 age group which represents a “youth bulge.” In contrast to the Maghreb and the Mashreq, the countries grouped in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC) all suffer from an under-population phenomenon. This has led them to between them invite more than 15m foreign workers needed to maintain their economies, most of whom do not come from the other two regions of the Arab world.
The total population of the Arab world has more than doubled in the last three decades, surging from 173m people in 1980 to 359.3m this year. The total population of the Middle East and North Africa is projected to reach 428.4m by 2020, with national population sizes varying considerably. Egypt’s 84.5m population today accounts for 23.5% of the total Arab population, followed by the Sudan with 43.2m people (12%); Algeria with 35.4m people (9.9%); Morocco with 32.4m people (9%); Iraq with 31.5m people (8.8%); Saudi Arabia with 26.3m people (7.3%) and Yemen with 24.3m people (6.8%).
Egypt is projected to remain the most populous country in the Arab world with a total population of 98.6m people by 2020. At the other end of the scale, the Comoros, Bahrain, Djibouti and Qatar will still be the countries with the smallest population sizes, each accounting for less than 0.5% of the Arab region’s population.
Yet despite these dramatic increases in population, fertility levels have in fact been declining in the Arab region because of better female education and the increased participation of women in the labour force. The total fertility rate for Arab countries declined from 6.2 live births per woman in the period 1980-1985 to 3.3 in the period 2005-2010, which compares with an average 2.6 around the world.
The main consequence of this declining fertility trend is the re-shaping of the age structure of the population of Arab countries, with an increase in the proportion of young people. This increase in the "Youth bulge" population is a double-edged sword; it could help boost economic growth if Arab governments are able to integrate youth into their development strategies in ways comparable to South East Asian countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Alternatively, it could be an agent of violence and civil war, as in Rwanda and other sub-Saharan countries that lack the means to integrate youth into their economic development.