Key fact

Over the past four decades, Saudi Arabia’s population growth has averaged 4 per cent a year

Source: UN

The past few months have heard much debate over the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region’s youth bulge in the wake of the protests that have seen thousands of frustrated youngsters taking to the streets. Governments are now more focused than ever on addressing the issue and tackling high levels of unemployment among the young.

In 1950, average life expectancy in Saudi Arabia was 50 years, people can now expect to live for up to 73 years

But just as Saudi Arabia starts to get to grips with this problem and the pressure of its ticking demographic timebomb begins to ease, the government will have to start working on new plans to cope with the opposite problem: an ageing population with an increasingly higher life expectancy.

In 1970, Saudi Arabia’s total population was a little over 5.7 million. As of 2010, according to the UN’s Population Division, the kingdom was home to some 27.5 million people, making it the most populous country on the Arabian peninsula. The past four decades have seen the population grow at an average of 4 per cent a year.

For the Saudi policymakers of the 1970s, who hoped to boost the population in order to accommodate rampant economic growth, (which has averaged more than 5 per cent over the past 40 years) these numbers could be seen as a success.

Population crisis in Saudi Arabia

Today, the kingdom’s demographic make-up is a growing concern, not least because of high unemployment rates. Some 10 per cent of the working-age population was out of a job in 2010, according to the World Bank. The kingdom faces the twin challenges of a growing absolute number of young adults looking for jobs and a growing number of over-60s who, sooner or later, will become dependent on either the state or their families.

These challenges have arisen for three reasons, explains Ragui Assad, a professor at Humphrey School of Public Affairs in the US and a fellow at the Economic Research Forum in Cairo, where he is currently based. High albeit declining fertility rates have met with an increasing level of infant survival, while improved healthcare and living standards have seen huge gains in life expectancy. The second point is the most important, he adds.

“What leads to growth is increased child survival,” says Assad. “Fertility rates in Saudi Arabia were already high, but the difference is the child survival rate. Fertility is still quite high and normally there is a lag between the increased infant survival rate and a decrease in fertility, but in Saudi Arabia, this lag has been quite long.”

In 1970, women in Saudi Arabia had on average 7.2 children. By the 1980s, the figure had fallen to 6.2 children, but even as late as 1994, the average number of births for each woman was 6.1. By 2010, the last time Riyadh performed a census of the population, the fertility rate had fallen to just over three births.

Although the drop has been dramatic, Saudi women still have more children on average than those in more developed countries of the Mena region. Only Yemeni, Iraqi and Syrian women have more children than their Saudi counterparts, according to the UN.

“Saudi Arabia is kind of a special case,” says Gerhard Heilig, director of the UN’s Population Division. “They had a policy of high fertility even in the 1990s, when other countries in the region were easing off. The policy at a government level was one of high fertility.”

An increasing number of the children born in the kingdom are also making it through to childhood. In 1970, an estimated 204 out of 1,000 Saudi babies died before they had seen out their first year. By the 1990s, the infant mortality rate had dropped to 30. At the time of the last census, the rate was 19 deaths for each 1,000 births.

This is still far higher than in other GCC states such as the UAE, where only 7 in 1,000 children die in their first year, or even Oman or Qatar, where the infant mortality rate is 9 in 1,000. But it is far better than the rate in countries with similar levels of fertility. For example, 53 in 1,000 Yemeni babies die in their first year.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabians also have longer lifespans. In 1950, average life expectancy in the kingdom was about 50 years. Presently, its citizens can reasonably expect to live for an average of 73 years.

Fewer youth

The three factors described by Assad mean that the challenges for policymakers are not just confined to the much-publicised regional youth bulge. Furthermore, according to Heilig, the concept is misunderstood. Saudi Arabia’s youth bulge actually peaked in the 1970s, when 50 per cent of the population was under the age of 17. Currently, half the population is 25 or older.

As a result of the lower fertility rates and improved life expectancy, Saudi Arabia’s population is actually getting older, not younger, while the proportion of 15-25-year-olds has remained largely constant over the past four decades, at about 15-17 per cent of the total population.

“If the whole population is increasing and the number of youths is constant, you don’t have a youth bulge,” says Heilig. “It will actually decline. The issue is the growth in population, not the composition.”

If fertility rates continue to decline, the proportion of 15-25-year-olds in the total population will also continue to decline over the coming decades. But the absolute number of young people will continue to increase. The UN forecasts that the total number of 15-25-year-olds will remain stable until 2020 at about 5 million, before increasing to 6 million in 2040, after which the number of youths will begin to decline to about 5.4 million in 2050.

During the same period, the number of people aged over 60 will increase constantly, according to the UN, from about 1.4 million in 2010 to 2.5 million in a decade’s time, 3.9 million by 2030 and 10.8 million in 2050. They will make up 24 per cent of the total population, compared with 5 per cent today.

Tough decisions for policymakers

This leaves Riyadh with some tough choices to make. The government can continue to encourage population growth in order to ensure that there are enough young people to support an ageing population, or it could continue to allow fertility rates to decline and focus on developing the economy.

The government has indicated that it does not plan to intervene for the time being. Even if it did, says Assad, it would not be able to do much to change current trends, as this would not have much of an impact over the next 20 years.

“The problem of the youth bulge is something that is happening now,” he says. “The window for greying is 30-40 years; it is not something the Middle East really needs to worry about.”

Both Assad and Heilig agree that a major reduction in fertility rates would be the cumulative effect of improved education and social standing for women in Saudi Arabia. “The most important change is the status of women, their education, and the opportunity cost of their time,” says Assad. “Given the current situation in Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely that this is going to change any time soon.”

Another issue for policymakers, on paper at least, is a growing gap between the number of males and females. UN data shows that in 2010, the total number of men in the kingdom was 15.3 million, while there were only 12.4 million women. This difference was most pronounced among younger people. The number of men and women over the age of 60 is almost perfectly balanced.

Migrant labour in Saudi Arabia

“The main reason for the greater number of men in Western Asia is migrant labour,” says Assad. “It is due to many more men coming in than women to meet manual and construction labour demand. So, you have an excess of men in the country. The idea was originally to have a population big enough to accommodate economic demand, but it didn’t work. When people get wealthier, they aren’t too keen on doing manual labour.”

The decision to increase immigration levels coincided with a more relaxed attitude to fertility rates. “The government loosened the idea of creating population growth,” he says. “All of [the Mena] countries are highly modernised societies. On average, fertility is now 2-3 children a woman as compared to 3-4 a woman in the 1990s.”

The shape and makeup of the Saudi Arabia’s population will undergo significant changes over the next four decades as it barrels towards an estimated 45 million people. During that period, Riyadh will have to work out how to employ a growing number of young men and women and then ease them into retirement. Even with the kingdom’s huge oil resources, that is likely to be a huge challenge.