The Happy Arab News Service

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Great Leap Forward

Special thanks to Cice for helping with this post

Muslim demographics have been getting some attention recently. Declining Arab, Persian and Turkish birth rates in the Middle East are interpreted by some as signs of modernity sweeping the region. You should be aware of two problems though. For one you have different sources reporting widely divergent data. For example, if you believe Wikipedia that relies on the US Census Bureau (USCB), the Saudi total fertility rate (TFR) should be around meager 2.35 births to woman in 2010. According to the USCB, it was 2.6 in 2008. According to the World Bank, however, in 2008 the rate was not 2.6, but 3.1. This is not a huge difference but to get from 3.1 to 2.6 can easily take a whole decade. You would like to know whether you can raise a toast to the death of Muslim demographics already or you will have to wait for another decade. The USCB is an important source and used both by Wikipedia and NationMaster. The CIA Factbook population figures apparently also come from the USCB. Google, on the other hand, is sourcing the World Bank for its charts.

Google/World Bank TFR Graph for Saudi Arabia

Two, you have big expatriate communities in Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Naturally, Western expats or hordes of Indian workers are of little interest to you since they are not citizens, have few rights and little influence, and eventually return to their countries. The problem is that both Wikipedia and Google don't provide separate statistics for nationals and expats but instead report cumulative stats for the entire population, while you would like to know first of all how the local Arabs are doing in demographic terms.

The difference between the cumulative stats and data for nationals can be huge. For example, this summer the National reported a 50% drop in the UAE birth rate between 1990-2007, almost to the replacement level, and quoted an "expert" who warned about the approaching decline in the number of UAE nationals. However, a blog post by a Western expat in the UAE I stumbled upon a few days ago, disputes the number. Without sourcing national statistical databases, the guy drops a bunch of links to other articles who seem to be better informed than the National (which on other occasions is not bad at all). The links point to a wide fertility gap between the expat population of the UAE and the UAE nationals who account for only 20% of the entire population.

From the links it appears that in 2005 the TFR for nationals was standing at 4.6 which is quite high even by the standards of the Middle East. The World Bank, sourced by the Google chart, reports TFR of 2.2 for the same year. This is obviously due to the fact that the World Bank data comes for the entire UAE population including the huge community of expats. So the TFR of the entire UAE population, as reported by the World Bank, is less than a half of the TFR of local Arabs. Obviously the local Emiratees still have quite a few years to go before we can declare them an endangered species.

This Google/World Bank Graph is of little use, if you want to know how the UAE nationals are doing

Now, what's indeed the true demographic situation of Saudi Arabia, by far the most important Arab country in the Gulf? Given that the World's Bank provides only cumulative stats for the Gulf countries, you would like to see a detailed breakdown of fertility data by nationality. The Saudi Central Department of Statistics indeed provides such information in "Indicators of fertility by nationality in 2004 to 2009" here. The Saudi data for 2004-2009 looks like this.

You can see that the national TFR (TFR for nationals) is not that different from the TFR for the total population and is coming down. You can also see that the World Bank's data matches the Saudi data for the total population in 2008 (though it increasingly does not for the previous years). On the other hand, I have no idea where the USCB takes its numbers from, but they seem to be just guessing or don't care for accuracy at all. This is rather unfortunate given how many rely on the USCB for data.

Interestingly enough, I recalculated the Saudi national TFR manually using the data from the Saudi Demographic Research Bulletin (tables 2 and 24) and got a bit lower figure of 3.28 for 2007. However, this is a minor difference. The Saudis should be expected to know to count themselves better than anybody else and the difference is probably due to their access to finer data that they use for calculating TFR.

Now why there is no major gap between the Saudi national indicators and the stats for entire population? This is because in Saudi Arabia expats account only for something like 20% of the entire population. 20% of expats are simply not enough to distort the statistics to such a spectacular degree and create such a confusion as in the case of the UAE. So you can rely on total statistics for Arab countries where expat population is around 20%. As far as I know another such country in the Gulf is Oman and here is the Google graph. You don't need a breakdown by nationality to know where Oman stands in demographic terms. The World Bank is enough (if they got the fertility rate just as accurately for 2008 as Saudi Arabia).

This Google/World Bank TFR Graph for Oman should be pretty close to the native Omani TFR, probably something like 3.2 for 2008

Finally what about the data itself? What about the TFR of 3.x for this flagship of Sunni fundamentalism in the Middle East and in fact the entire Muslim World, which is Saudi Arabia? The truth is that Islam does not have the "multiply and procreate" commandment. It's a Judeo Christian thing. So it's hard to know how much of the recent passion for birth control simply reflects the region's unemployment disaster. After all, the most aggressive family planning campaign in the Middle East is run by the Ayatollahs in Iran.

There are certain signs of stirring under the surface in Saudi Arabia, but otherwise the country still strikes one as exceptionally conservative. Recently no other else but the director of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Makkah Region, the boss of the moral police in the area (the guys who patrol streets to enforce gender segregation and proper Islamic attire), came under attack as a closet liberal himself, prompting intellectuals to write open letters in defense of the the daring sheikh. When chiefs of the moral police in your kingdom are the most progressive sector of the society, you have a good reason to start suspecting that you are not exactly a bastion of progress. And when your king is rumored to be spending sleepless nights on designing a whole new country within a country, where he can at last desegregate the sexes and shelter the more liberal section of the population from the clerics and their suicide bombers, it's a reasonable bet that the overall mood in the society does not bode well for the reformers.

However, if you believe that demography is destiny, you can certainly find some encouragement in the current data. Saudi Arabia is a big country. Its Wahhabi ideology has left the whole region, and even countries beyond, steadily drowning in a sea of suicide bombers. It's a very important Arab country and as of late its demographic transition appears to be quickly progressing towards completion. Even if this demographic transition is not driven by a genuine cultural shift, it may be already creating one as a byproduct. If you believe that demography is destiny in the Middle East too, then the Arab world may well be just about to shake off the shackles of its past and plunge into modernity. The stage appears all set for the Great Arab Leap Forward.

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