Are Gulf Arabs fat?

By Razib Khan | May 17, 2009 5:11 am

I was looking up some data on obesity rates, mostly for American states, and I stumbled onto the maps below on obesity rates by nation for males & females (in that order):

You can find the source and legend here. In any case I was totally surprised at how fat Arabs are, particularly Gulf Arabs. They aren’t in the NationMaster data set so I had never encountered any numbers on obesity. And the Gulf Arabs I’ve met in my life didn’t strike me as disproportionately obese. But in hindsight I think I have an explanation: most of the Gulf Arabs I’ve met are upper or upper middle class males who have come to the United States to complete their educations. In affluent societies there tends to be a negative correlation between obesity and socioeconomic status. If the only image of Americans that foreigners had were of people from Manhattan it would be a different image altogether. The obesity rates among women are striking, and in hindsight not too surprising. In the pre-modern situation women did do work, and in places like the Hejaz they still engage in many public activities in contravention of national norms imposed from the elites of the Nejd. But female labor is not longer necessary in an affluent society whose wealth is not due to labor productivity. Here’s an article on forces inside Saudi Arabia trying to block female fitness for the usual reasons.

  • Chas

    I’ve noticed that Arabs in London are extremely obese, including the rich ones in Kensington and Knightsbridge. It’s very noticeable in the kids, who all seem to be incredibly rotund.
    There may be a faint negative correlation between education and obesity, but it has nothing to do with social class, since receiving oil money is not particularly dependent on having a good education, but more about which family and tribe you belong to.

  • razib

    do a lit search. in fact the public health data do show a relationship between class (education) and obesity as i said above for the gulf states.

  • Mike Keesey

    Interesting — but why are Paraguayans so fat?

  • John Emerson

    I’m pretty sure that this is culture. There are a certain number of cultures where very large women are regarded as attractive, and I think that some of them are Saudis (Bedouins, I think). I believe that some of the Pacific Island societies were traditionally the same.
    “The only thing I can really complain about is the fact that my mom doesn’t understand the concept of being full. In Mauritania, fat women are attractive, so girls are encouraged to eat their faces off. And the food here is heavy stuff, soaked in oil. Whenever I stop eating, my mom gives me this evil look and says “Mange! Mange!” which means, “Eat! Eat!” I’m pretty sure she thinks they starve their women in America. I’ve explained to her that I don’t actually want to gain 50 pounds over my 2 month stay with her, and she’s grudgingly accepted that. But I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m emaciated.

  • pun the librarian

    I know an engineer who used to work in UAE. One time his company had trouble getting rights to build a factory in certain location because the local sheikh opposed the project. He got to know him and came along well with the sheikh but could not get the building rights.
    The sheikh was extremely fat and when they got to know each other better he often complained to my acquaintance about this. He persuaded the sheikh to start working out with him and after some time on the treadmill the sheikh shed significant amount of weight.
    In the end the company got the rights, the engineer got a hefty bonus and the sheikh got himself a new wife.
    The engineer told this story after someone had complained about overweight westerners saying that the chubby sheikh was hardly an isolated case.

  • diana

    Fat anecdotes.
    A Kenyan girl I knew is as slim as a willow wand, but her parents think she is fat because she gained 15 pounds in the US. Are East Africans thinner than West Africans? Do they have a different culture? John, tell me.
    Arizona has surprisingly few fat white people. Mexicans and Indians are chunky but not obese. Of course the obese ones might be inside hiding. The further north in AZ you go the more athletic.
    It seemed to me that Arizona has more men than women, esp. the north and they are all in good shape, better than Manhattanites.

  • omar ali

    Gulf Arabs also have some of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes on the planet (in fact, I think Kuwait now has the highest incidence rate in the world) and the rates are still going up. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 years or so…


    I noticed this years ago when looking at obesity rates in the economist data index.
    I also notice that punjabis tend to be overweight as well. Perhaps they have more arab lineage in them? As far as the women are concerned, well, they are barely allowed to venture outside of their houses and they are discouraged from engaging in sports and they have high birth rates. This will almost certainly lead to obesity.

  • John Emerson

    I don’t know anything except what I’ve seen, but all of the Somali and Ethiopian men I’ve seen are extremely slender. It has something to do with the West African dominance of things like the steeplechase, I’m sure. Per Wiki, five of the last six steeplechase record holders are Kenyan by birth, and in 2000 10 of the top 15 steeplechasers were Kenyan.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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