Population growth in the Arab world
Egypt’s population hit the 100 million mark February 11.
With an average of 2 million babies born each year, the Egyptian population has tripled since 1967.
Urbanisation-related issues, such as over-crowdedness, clogged traffic and pollution, are exerting tremendous pressure on the country. Cairo and the province of Giza count no fewer than 19 million inhabitants.
Authorities are building a new capital 45km east of Cairo but the demographic problem is unlikely to ease soon, with or without that new metropolis.
Hala el-Said, Egyptian minister of planning and economic development, said demographic growth is likely to lead to a decline in per capita share of housing, educational and health services and job creation. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has put overpopulation “among the biggest threats facing Egypt,” on a par with terrorism.
As with most Arab countries, Egypt has a youthful population with just more than 60% under the age of 30 and the youth unemployment rate is nearly 35%. One-third of the population lives below the threshold of poverty.
The government, which has introduced a “Two is Enough” campaign to limit births, is battling sceptical mindsets, especially in the countryside, where large families are considered an asset to maximise sources of income.
Across the region, demographic growth is relatively slowing. UN figures state that MENA’s population growth rate was expected to slow from its current 1.7% to 0.8% by the middle of the century. By 2030, it will be 1.3%.
The overall population number will grow from 338 million in 2000 to 724 million in 2050. Only Lebanon’s population is predicted to shrink.
Growth will be uneven across the region, as “countries that are fragile or in conflict and poorer countries tend to have faster-growing populations,” the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.
The population of half of MENA countries will increase 50% from 2015-50 and is likely to double in Iraq, Sudan and the Palestinian territories. In absolute terms, Egypt will add 60 million to its population, Iraq 45 million and Sudan 42 million, during the period.
The MENA region is in a demographic transition that constitutes a major challenge but also an opportunity. “With fewer births each year, a country’s young dependent population decreases in relation to its working-age population and with fewer people to support, the country has a window of opportunity for rapid economic growth, noted a recent UNICEF report.
However, nowhere are the Arab world’s populous states seizing that opportunity. In all likelihood, the problem of population growth will compound existing socio-economic pressures.
Increasing demand on resources connected to population growth can negate whatever progress is achieved in terms of economic growth.
Youth unemployment coupled with deteriorating public services and the perception of government corruption are already sparking chronic street protests.
Beyond demographics, populations across the region expect improvement in their standard of living, better governance and more efficient management of resources.