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Demographics Of Africa And The Middle East Continue To Explode

by Hichem Karoui
UPI Outside View Commentator
Paris (UPI) Apr 12, 2006

Some analysts have been focusing on the economic and demographic pressures that drive the Middle East towards terrorism and extremism. The threat is driven by forces that are generational, rather than limited to a few years:

The Middle East and North Africa are a long-term demographic nightmare. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the Middle East is a region where the population will nearly double between now and 2030. The total population of the Gulf has grown from 30 million in 1950 to 39 million in 1960, 52 million in 1970, 74 million in 1980, 109 million in 1990, and 139 million in 2000. Conservative projections put it at 172 million in 2010, 211 million in 2020, 249 million in 2030, 287 million in 2040, and 321 million in 2050.

The Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, region had a population of 112 million in 1950. The population is well over 415 million today, and approaching a fourfold increase. It will more than double again, to at least 833 million, by 2050.

The need to come firmly to grips with population growth is all too clear. Some of the most important, and sometimes troubled, countries in the region will experience explosive population growth. Algeria is projected to grow from 31 million in 2000 to 53 million in 2050. Egypt has a lower population growth rate than many of its neighbors, but is still projected to grow from 68 million in 2000 to 113 million in 2050.

The Gaza Strip is projected to grow from 1.1 to 4.2 million, and the West Bank from 2.2 to 5.6 million. Iran is estimated to grow from 65 to 100 million, and Iraq from 23 to 57 million. Morocco is projected to grow from 30 to 51 million. Oman will grow from 2.5 to 8.3 million. Saudi Arabia will grow from 22 to 91 million, and Syria from 16 to 34 million. Yemen's population growth rate is so explosive that it is projected to grow from 18 to 71 million.

Population growth is creating a "youth explosion." This growth has already raised the size of the young working age population ages 20 to 24 in the Gulf area from 5.5 million in 1970 to 13 million in 2000. Conservative estimates indicate it will grow to 18 million in 2010 and to 24 million in 2050. If one looks at the MENA region as a whole, age 20-24s have grown steadily from 10 million in 1950 to 36 million today, and will grow steadily to at least 56 million by 2050.

The World Bank estimates that some 36 percent of the total MENA population is less than 15 years of age, versus 21 percent in the United States and 16 percent in the European Union. The ratio of dependents to each working age man and woman is three times that in a developed region like the European Union. The U.S. State Department has produced estimates that more than 45 percent of the population is under 15 years of age.

Population growth presents major problems for infrastructure. Major problems now exist in every aspect of infrastructure from urban services to education. At the same time, population pressure is exhausting natural water supplies in many countries, leading to growing dependence on desalination, and forcing permanent dependence on food imports. Demand for water already exceeds the supply in nearly half the countries in the region, and annual renewable water supplies per capita have fallen by 50 percent since 1960 and are projected to fall from 1,250 square meters today to 650 square meters in 2025 -- about 14 percent of today's global average. Groundwater is being over pumped, and "fossil water" depleted.

Much of the region cannot afford to provide more water for agriculture at market prices, and in the face of human demand, much has become a "permanent" food importer. The resulting social changes are indicated by the fact that the percentage of the work force in agriculture has dropped from around 40 percent to around 10 percent over the last 40 years. At the same time, regional manufacturers and light industry have grown steadily in volume, but not in global competitiveness.

Employment and education will be critical challenges to regional stability. The Gulf already is an area where approximately 70 percent of the population is under 30 years of age and nearly 50 percent is under 20. It is also a region where real and disguised unemployment averages at least 20 percent for young males, where no real statistics exist for women, and where the number of young people entering the work force each year will double between now and 2025.

This creates an immense "bow wave" of future strains on social, educational, political, and economic systems whose effect is compounded by a lack of jobs and job growth, practical work experience, and competitiveness. The failure to achieve global competitiveness, diversify economies, and create jobs, is only partially disguised by the present boom in oil revenues. Direct and disguised unemployment range from 12-20 percent in many countries, and the World Bank projects the labor force as growing by at least 3 percent per year for the next decade.

Hyper-urbanization and a half-century decline in agricultural and traditional trades impose high levels of stress on traditional social safety nets and extended families. The urban population seems to have been under 15 million in 1950. It has since more than doubled from 84 million in 1980 to 173 million today, and some 25 percent of the population will soon live in cities of one million or more.

Hichem Karoui is a Paris-based journalist and researcher for the newspaper Al Arab in London. This article is reprinted by permission of the Munich-based World Security Network. United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

Source: United Press International


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