The Arab world's demographic transition

By Razib Khan | November 1, 2011 10:24 pm

In the post below I stumbled upon a weird datum. Kuwait’s total fertility is now below 3. The average estimates seem to be ~2.5 or so. This surprised me, as my impression was that Gulf Arab petroleum based states tended to encourage pro-natalism. This was both a matter of ideology, and also because the small and wealthy native populations lived off rents, and had not had to modify their neo-medieval ideologies to foster productivity driven economic growth. But perhaps Kuwait is an anomaly? Well, it turns out that the Saudi fertility rate is now below 3 as well. Again, depending on which numbers you trust a value of ~2.5 seems plausible. In 1980, at the peak of OPEC’s power and a period when Saudi Arabia was flush with incredible per capita wealth the fertility rate was north of 7.0. But even in the mid-1990s Saudi Arabia’s fertility remained a robust 5.0. Obviously one has to account for the fact that some of the “Arab” nations are not very Arab. The UAE has huge South Asian and Persian populations, not to mention all other sorts. So its fertility of 1.80 can be chalked up to its unique demographics. But would you have guessed that Lebanon’s fertility rate is now the same as Finland’s?

Below the fold is a chart which shows the trends among Arab nations and Finland over the past 40 years. The shading of the bars is proportional to life expectancy.

Image Credit: Denise Chan

MORE ABOUT: Fertility

Comments (37)

  1. john

    The craziest part is that Israel’s fertility rate is now higher than most Arabs States and it has been rising in the past decade.

  2. 5371

    You do know that the great majority of these country fertility rates are based on very little or on nothing at all, don’t you?

  3. The craziest part is that Israel’s fertility rate is now higher than most Arabs States and it has been rising in the past decade.

    partly it’s the increased proportion of haredi. though even secular israeli jews have a relatively high TFR.

    #2, i think i know what you’re saying, but you’re the clearest.

  4. toto

    Maghreb countries have experienced some of the fastest demographic transitions in history. Algeria cut its fertility rate by half in 20 years, and by 2/3 in 30 years.

    Look at the curves.

  5. Your statistics from yesterday seem to show that most of the decline in fertility rate attributable to economic development is mediated through improved life expectency, rather than an overall transition to economies with a Western style productive middle class (something that seems to predict democracy movement success better than fertility). In other words, it is driven by better health care.

    Heuristically, people have enough kids to have a replacement number survive to adulthood per woman and underestimate their chances of survival somewhat but not dramatically.

    Since oil rich countries have almost universally invested in decent universal healthcare systems, it follows that fertility has fallen.

  6. Mark

    Most developed countries have state statistical agencies that have more up-to-date and accurate tfr’s than the CIA World Factbook, which can be uncovered with a little sleuthing.

  7. LarryD

    Fertility is negatively correlated with literacy, positively with religious belief.

  8. omar

    I dont think the statistics are likely to be wrong. Gulf countries have reasonably good healthcare systems and vital statistics reporting.
    The trend does not surprise me. I worked as a pediatrician in saudi arabia for 6 years and even there the trend was in this direction. One of our Saudi workers illustrated the rapid change in lifestyles with this anecdote: His grandmother (not some imaginary distant ancestor, but his still living grandmother) was married at age 9 and had 10 or 11 children. She and her siblings never went to any school. Her younger children went to school and her daughters got married in their late teens..still with anywhere from 5-10 kids. Now his daughters (2) are in college and planning to go to the US on state-funded scholarships for more education. I doubt if they will have 10 kids.
    The country as a whole gets its income from oil, but that oil money gets to most of the people in the form of cushy jobs (and not so cushy jobs..we had Saudi ladies cleaning the hospital toilets, though I think we were the first place to try used to be all Filipinas and indonesians and Bangladeshis). Lifestyle, in spite of the persistence of certain “Islamic” norms was more westernized than the lifestyle of poor Pakistanis..a fact that is easy to understand once you drop preconceptions about the decisive role of religious ideology in daily life. Girls go to school, then go to college. More and more hold jobs. They still dont drive (thus providing employment to several thousand Keralites as drivers..and causing paroxysms of jealousy and sexual fantasies in the Islamic preachers of the kingdom) and the official ideology is pro-natalist, but many of the same pressures and incentives to have fewer kids are operating.

  9. Diggs

    The Saudis would never, ever count the South Asians (mostly Filipinos) in any demographic of Saudi Arabian anything.
    A few more years of young male Sauds strapping explosives to their waist and traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan in search of eternal reward from Allah and you’ll see the birth rate drop even further.

  10. mike

    This book, “How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too)” by David P. Goldman, makes the same point on fertility rates in the middle east and the potential results. Think about too many old Iranians being supported by a government that is no longer able to pay for everything with oil money.

  11. Belasarius

    Just finished reading a book that discusses this exact issue called, “How Civilizations Die.” His answer is that there birthrate declines for a number of reasons until they destroy themselves. The author would link that pretty colored chart to another showing educational achievement by women and say that was the primary answer. He focuses a lot of his attention on Iran in the book which has a birthrate similar to Italy’s, declining oil production, and a total lack of enthusiasm for government by Mullah. Huge numbers of Iranian women have become prostitutes.

  12. Three Sided Guy

    This is an interesting dynamic. Life expectancy is driven to a large degree by infant mortality rates. Countries with lower infant mortality rates will naturally have higher life expectancy. Another consequence of low infant mortality is that the number of births per woman will also be lower. It would be interested to see the change in the number of living children per woman.

  13. Saudi Arabia’s birth rate is dropping. Most of that has to do with–yes–a rising middle class who sees that a surplus of children does not equate with better lifestyles and economic success. More Saudi women are working as well, with the government trying to get female unemployment steeply down from its current 25%.

    The Saudi economy is also diversifying. Crude oil remains the major income producer, but the petrochemical sector is growing quickly, as is mineral extraction. Other sectors–beyond government hiring–is growing more slowly, but still growing.

    One thing that’s probably not a factor, though, are foreign workers. They are brought in as individuals, with the vast majority leaving their families behind. High level expats may get family visas, but they are the ones being pushed out by the current Saudization plan, Nitiqat. There is some marriage among expats, but not enough to make a difference in population figures.

  14. Vinny B.

    Not surprising, as like he did in America, Bush destroyed the desire of Arabs to bring people into the world because of the oppression of women, children, minorities, and gays engendered by the Bush Administration and the Republicans, who are war criminals that should be given a fair trial in the Hague and then immediately imprisoned for life. I am tired of Republicans blaming the black President for everything, and when they can’t blame him, they blame those darkies who pray 5 times a day.

  15. David-2

    This is all covered in detail – and explained as well (though that is a judgement call) – in the book “How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too)” by David Goldman. I believe the book to be well worth reading. Even though its conclusion as to the reason for this decline is not really politically correct it is probably true.

  16. Lina Inverse

    Read David Goldman AKA Spengler, he’s been writing about the Muslim fertility crash for some time. It’s particularly acute in Iran and their leadership is very concerned, along with Turkey’s, where the Kurds will soon enough be a majority. Check out his many columns or his new book, How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too).

  17. Ray

    Iran is crashing – going from 6.38 in 1984 to 1.7 in 2009, and lower still today. No society can withstand such a rapid inversion of the demographic pyramid. In ancient times plague took the old and infirm. The demophage of today eats the young, denying their existence, as in countries worldwide the basic will to survive and reproduce is enervated and the future is stillborn in exchange for a more tolerable present. And the process seems to be happening the fastest in the Islamic world as Islam offers no succor, no path to modernity or even a tentative step away from the disaster that Islamic countries have become in comparison to the rest of the world, especially Israel. Physical collapse goes hand in hand with spiritual and moral collapse.

    In not too many years, older Iranians will starve in massive numbers as the few remaining youngsters are unable to feed them, the oil and the nation’s will exhausted. I think that the government there is well aware of the looming catastrophe. A dying nation will not act rationally. Thus it is critical that Iran not possess nuclear weapons and should be prevented from doing so, whatever the cost.

  18. Abelard Lindsey

    “The craziest part is that Israel’s fertility rate is now higher than most Arabs States and it has been rising in the past decade.”

    Anyone who reads “Spengler” (David Goldman) is well aware of this fact.

  19. Dan

    I have often wondered if anyone has studied the correlation between fertility rates and the availability of late night television.

  20. Why should anyone be surprised? There’s no special “Arab” or “Muslim” fertility pattern. The same environment produces the same results for everyone.

    30 years ago there were dozens of countries with a TFR of 7 or more; there’s now extactly one. Even in genuinely backward regions birth-rates are plunging. The world population will probably crest within the next generation and then start to fall, slowly at first and then steeply and swiftly as geometric regression kicks in.

  21. David

    So Spengler’s wrong or you just don’t like him?

  22. Marty

    Well, you don’t think much of Goldman, but he identified this long enough ago to have written and published a book about it with a plausible (I do not know how correct) explanation, and you’re just “stumbling on a weird datum” now and from this post it’s clear you don’t have a clue how to explain it. Maybe you should show a little humility and take input from wherever it is offered, before just dismissing things ad hominem.

  23. #10, man, i loved your fiction when i had time for that stuff!

    #11, he’s either ignorant or mendacious. i think mendacious. people who find him awesomely insightful i assume are either stupid or ignorant.

  24. hey instalaunchers: i’m actually not as ignorant of demographics as you seem to think. e.g.:

    i was surprised by the magnitude of the decline among gulf arabs. i’ve blogged/am aware of the iranian fertility crash. there are few groups, like orthodox jews, which still exhibit positive fertility with socioeconomic status. i thought perhaps salafi rent-consuming arabs might be similar (also going by the fecundity of the house of saud).

  25. john

    A recent study of the Israeli Office of Statistics shows that the fertility of the haredim went down 15% between 2001 and 2009 from 7.5 to 6.5 while secular fertility rose from 2.15 to 2.3 – and the zionist religious staying put at 4.3. Of course, the share of haredim is rising in the population, but still this is not the only explanation.

    Sorry but it is difficult to take seriously someone who had never heard of Franz Rosenzweig, one of the most famous and most influential philosopher of the first half od the 20th century.

  26. Sorry but it is difficult to take seriously someone who had never heard of Franz Rosenzweig, one of the most famous and most influential philosopher of the first half od the 20th century.

    stop bullshitting.

    his fame was modest in the english speaking word. are you ignorant, or are you too being mendacious?

  27. JL

    Huge numbers of Iranian women have become prostitutes.

    As pointed out by TGGP a long time ago, Goldman’s claim about lots of Iranian women becoming prostitutes is a total fabrication. Unless he has some new sources for the claim, I don’t buy it.

  28. john

    You know I can complain only to myself. I had promised myself not to write here anymore seeing the arrogant and insulting way you answer to people that for some reasons you don’t like. If you are incapable of accepting other people’s views or ways of thinking, you should maybe not run a blog open to the public. Or maybe you should see a psychiatrist.
    By the way, basing your answer about Rosenzweig on some Google tool is so pathetic that it is funny.
    Please fell free to “ban me”.

  29. Sandgroper

    “incapable of accepting other people’s views or ways of thinking”

    “basing your answer about Rosenzweig on some Google tool is so pathetic that it is funny”


  30. chris w

    If he’s so famous, why are you the one who has heard of him?

  31. omar

    How would I know what goes on in Spengler’s head, but I will have a go anyway. I think his agenda is Israeli survival, which he seems to believe can only be based on a serious crash in the “Arab/Muslim” world. Anyone who is not 24/7 committed to this zer0-sum game between Israel and the mad Muslims will gain little from reading him.
    Though he CAN be fun. Like many good propagandists, he has a deliciously vicious and wicked style…Since any human being is likely to have days where they want nothing better than to deliver a swift kick to someone’s behind, there are definitely days when he is entertaining.

  32. Emblazoned

    #29 I think Razib has been very gracious publishing your comments. If your points are demolished with simple but effective referencing as Razib has exhibited, it is poor form to cry arrogance. If your case is strong, refute your opponents points. Pleading offense is an emotional tactic designed to end discussions rather than develop them.

  33. Archduke

    Also interesting to see that the countries with the highest birth rates today are also the ones with barely functioning central governments. They are all likely to have high infant mortality, but perhaps there is also an element of self-help — the state can’t help me, so I can only count on many children to help me in older age.

  34. “Spengler” was, for some number of years, a close associate of Lyndon Larouche, co-authoring at least one book with LaRouche. That said, I find him an interesting read in limited doses, as long as you are aware of his strong biases. For example, to his credit, he’s been ahead of the media curve on the narrowing fertility gap between Jews in Israel and Palestinians.

  35. leviticus

    Wow, this was fascinating. It goes so against common, received wisdom (?).

    Someone will have to tell Robert Spencer et al that the ME will not be a 21-century womb of nations, sending forth its hordes to demographically overwhelm the Decadent West. Of course, the Decadent West meme was already around in the 19th century. If those prognosticators had been correct, Europe would have already succumbed to a Eurasian horde of Russian or Chinese provenance. In other words, if the West declines, as we are doing, slowly abandoning the Enlightenment and reveling in a coarse faux populism, we’ve nobody but ourselves to blame.

    It’s anecdotal evidence, but I can recall that when I was in the UAE several years ago, I didn’t see hordes of Arab children. The ration of babies and kids to adults seemed about the same as in the US. At least, I wasn’t under the impression of where did all these kids come from? Another factor keeping the birth rates in the UAE down is that the “blue collar” guest workers are usually away from their spouses back in Pakistan, Sri Lanka or the Philippines. I’ve also been told that they have a strict policy of deportation for female guest workers who get pregnant.

    What’s interesting from your chart is the lack of a correlation between region and life expectancy and fertility. The rates are all over the map, there is no apparent North African vs. Peninsular grouping. One might argue for a high fertility zone in the North ME: Iraq, Syria, Jordan with a Levantine outlier.

    Considering the individual circumstances of these countries it isn’t surprising, cross the border between the UAE and Oman and you instantly notice an economic difference. Not surprising, but still interesting, I think.

  36. H

    There’s another dynamic working here as well: lower middle class Gulfie men are marrying at a huge rate foreign women from Egypt, ex-Soviet Union, Iran, India and the Philippines. They can’t afford to marry GCC women, who are more likely to have a university education and aspire to marry solidly middle class guys. Local traditions aren’t much in vogue either among this demographic: not many young university educated women are willing to marry guys with another wife, and despite the best efforts of some Shia clerics, temporary marriage now comes with a big stigma. The result is a big increase in spinsterhood for women in the more advanced GCC countries – to such an extent that in Bahrain at least it was a political issue.

    These mixed marriages have resulted in the rise of a new generation with Gulfie dads and foreign mums who have difficulty speaking in Arabic. The kids are usually brought up speaking English because this is spoken at home between the parents and with the maids. This is speeding up the smaller GCC states’ transition to a predominantly English speaking region.


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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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