The Happy Arab News Service

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Coming to an End

Demography in the Middle East: Population Growth Slowing, Women's Situation Unresolved

By Patrick Clawson
MERIA, March 2009

Policymakers and the general public are only slow realizing that the Middle East's long population boom is coming to an end. The Middle East is experiencing the same "demographic transition" to slow growth that hit Europe and North America a few generations ago, and Asia and Latin America in the last generation. In some countries, the change has been particularly dramatic. In Iran, the number of births has already dropped to half of the 1980s peak; 2,259,000 total births were registered in 1986/1987, while 2004/2005 had only 962,000.

. . .

The immediate reason for the slower population growth is a fall in the number of children born to the average woman over her lifespan, which is called the "total fertility rate" (TFR). For the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa region (which excludes Sudan and Israel), the average TFR fell from 6.2 in 1980 to 3.2 in 2000. TFRs are falling across the Middle East; for instance, in Egypt, the TFR dropped from 7.1 in 1960 to 3.5 in 2000. When demographers explain why the TFR declined in Europe or developing Asia or Latin America, they make reference to a host of factors absent in the contemporary Middle East, such as the declining influence of conservative religious views or industrial take-off. The breadth and depth of the demographic revolution in the Middle East has therefore been a surprise.

Source: Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Various preconceptions and cliches regarding population growth practiced by today's general public can be found on display on one environmental blog from the New York Times: UN Sees Falling Middle East Fertility Rates. The news about plummeting Arab/Muslim fertility rates in and around the Middle East were greeted by some enthusiastic readers as a victory of secularism over religion. Nothing more and nothing less!!! Others were looking for a connection between poverty and demographic transition pointing to Yemen as an example of poverty breeding demographics (A more plausible explanation should be of course that Yemen got caught in some sort of high fertility trap and it's the country's insane demographics that are breeding poverty and not the other way round). Finally, one of the more prolific and experienced environmentalists on the thread called on everybody to study an obscure scientific research that established that human reproduction is a function of availability of food!!! Truly, when it comes to environmentally conscious public, you can never know what you are going to read next.

"A host of factors absent in the contemporary Middle East" reminded me of an article by Youssef Courbage where he defined the demographic transition in the Middle East as poverty driven. Unfortunately his article seems to have been removed from the web though I have it saved in my email. Eventually I found it in one mail archive open for public view. Here it is for those interested: SOME ECONOMIC & POLITICAL ISSUES IN FERTILITY TRANSITION IN THE MENA REGION. Courbage made a good work of tracking fluctuations in fertility across the region against the background of global and local economic cycles demonstrating that as Arab societies started crumbling under the impact of rapid population growth, populations were forced to practice some kind of birth control and grudgingly accept the presence of women in workplaces.

Anyway, among the more interesting highlights of the article at hand is a claim that for most countries of the region the period from 2010-2040 will be the most favorable in demographic terms. The demographic dividend will be at the peak around 2030 when the dependency ratio is expected to bottom out. The author is worried that that due to a very abrupt demographic transition a large part of the dividend will be wasted for nothing. It's another way to say that the author is worried that the Middle East may collapse under the impact of population momentum accumulated during several decades of the demographic explosion. The article does not differentiate between the regional pioneers of the demographic revolution and the rest of the region. In particular, in Iran demographic transition seems to have happened too fast as in a matter of two decades the fertility rate collapsed from a very high one straight into the sub replacement zone. There are some already speculating that Iran will miss out on a large part of its demographic window.

Demographic transition going hand in hand with an explosion of Muslim fundamentalism and radical Islam is interesting enough in itself. However, a question some may ask is what will happen when the current tide is reversed. Everything in the world goes through ups and downs and the current fundamentalist surge cannot continue forever. This extremely fast demographic transition seems to have happened despite all religious fervor that was gripping the region through the last decades. When the piety is gone, what will happen? My bold and reckless theory would be that at some point the Middle East will be consumed by a demographic implosion on a par with the one right now decimating the former Catholic countries of Southern Europe. The spread of individualism and collapse of traditional family structures as a result of low fertility will create an acute societal and cultural crisis. Womens emancipation is also bound to have a very disruptive effect on societies in which extreme male domination was a norm just a few decades ago. Almost 1/3 of Saudi marriages today are expected to end in divorce and this society has barely started opening up. In short, expect more surprises in the future.

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Proclaimed un monstruooo muy monstruoso at 10:39 PM