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Wasted Opportunities

Why will the demographic threats to the Arab region continue in 2022?

29 December 2021

Internal wars and external interference have exhausted the populations of several Arab countries, and have led to the displacement of millions, whether through migration to safer regions within their homeland, or through seeking asylum to other countries within or outside the Arab region, or even through departing their own countries, partly by choice and partly by force, towards neighboring countries, as is the case with Libyans leaving for Egypt and Tunisia. This all comes in addition to the option of risky and illegal immigration paths towards Europe as a second asylum stop.

Perhaps the greatest of tragedies that the Arab world witnessed over the last decade was that of the huge surge of Syrian asylees to neighboring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, in addition to resorting to some other non-neighboring countries, such as Egypt and other countries in Europe and around the world. Added to that is the displacement of over six million people within Syria in the attempts to flee from conflict areas. This also comes in addition to the persistence of the Palestinian refugee crisis, where the number of those subject to the UNRWA has reached nearly six million refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, apart from those living in various Arab countries and around the world. 

Political and ethnic problems have also contributed to the exodus of thousands of citizens of sub-Saharan Africa. This is also compounded with the repercussions of the COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on human mobility all over the Arab region and the world. All this impacted the Arab world demographics, turning the demographic opportunities available within into a burden and perhaps a threat, which seems to be continuing throughout the coming year and perhaps the following years.  


1.    Population Weight Distributions 

In light of the political situation and the development of conflicts since the onset of the so-called Arab Spring, the collapse of several states and regimes, the emergence of new entities, terrorist organizations, foreign ambitions, and extraordinary political divisions, the population of the Arab world rose from 355 million in 2010 to 436 million in 2020. This is an absolute increase of 81 million people with an annual increase of more than eight million people, about a quarter of which is in Egypt. According to population estimates issued by the United Nations Population Division, the population of the Arab world is expected to continue to rise to nearly 520 million in 2030, with a total increase of 84 million people. This means that the pace of population increase in the Arab world is fairly declining.

Egypt tops the list of Arab countries in terms of population, as its population exceeded 100 million people in 2020 compared to about 80 million people in 2021, that is a population increase by 20 million people in ten years. In 2030, the population of Egypt is expected to reach over 120 million.

Algeria and Sudan are ranked second and third in population size among Arab countries in 2020 with a population of about 44 million people for each. However, by 2030, the population of Sudan is expected to rise to over 55 million, while Algeria's population is expected to reach about 50 million only. This may be attributed to the higher rate of population growth in Sudan, in addition to the young age structure of Sudan, which results in a higher percentage of women of childbearing age, and thus a higher level of fertility.  

Iraq, Morocco and Saudi Arabia rank fourth, fifth and sixth. These six countries combined represent more than 300 million people, or nearly 70 percent of the total population of the Arab world in 2020.

2.   Young Age Structure

Europe is often described as the old continent, where the percentage of the elderly population (65 years and above) represents more than 20% of the population, in addition to low fertility rates that are below the total fertility rate (about two children per couple), which may lead to a significant decline in the working-age population in the near future. The situation in the Arab world represents the total opposite, but this does not necessarily imply a better situation, as the young age structure that prevails in the Arab region is also accompanied by economic, political and social dilemmas, particularly with respect to political fluidity in the region. 

Males represent 51.8% of the total population in 2020, while women represent 48.2%. The gender ratio (number of males to 100 females) is 107 for the total population, which is an acceptable percentage that is similar to global ratios in this regard. 

As for the age structure of the population, the percentage of the population under 15 years of age represents 32.6% of the total population of the Arab world, which implies that children constitute about one third of the Arabo World population. The percentage of young people in the Arab world is expected to drop to less than 30% in 2030. Although these indicators reflect a young population structure in the Arab world, it also represents a great burden on the economic resources of the Arab countries, specifically in the sectors of education, health and primary care, in addition to the job opportunities required to meet the need of the successive surges flowing into the labor market annually. 

The percentage of the population in the productive age group (15-64 years) represents 62.7% of the total population in 2020, while the elderly group (64 years and above) constitutes less than 5% of the total population, which implies that Arab communities do not suffer from the phenomenon of population aging experienced by the European communities.

Despite the high percentage of the population within the productive age group constituting more than 60% of the total population, which is known as the “demographic opportunity” through which the society can proceed towards achieving economic development, the structural economic challenges and the political turmoil in Arab countries over the past decade, as well as the low levels of education and health services in several Arab countries, hindered harnessing this opportunity. The population inflation led to several  economic and social problems, unlike what happened in the eighties of the last century in the countries of the so-called "Asian tigers" that took advantage of that demographic opportunity and worked on training and equipping people, which led to an economic renaissance in those countries in a short period.


3.    An “Alarming” Youth Bulge

The population pyramid reflects the percentages of the population by age and gender, and shows a noticeable indentation at the base of the population pyramid, which represents the age groups of young people. This indentation is due to the high percentage of children in society resulting from the continued high fertility during the previous periods. It is also worth noting that the youth population groups (15-24 years old) have witnessed an inflation in 2010 and 2020. This phenomenon will continue in the future (2030), known as the youth bulge. Additionally, the youth groups have emerged, within a shortage of adequate care, which may have negative repercussions on economic and social development endeavors and perhaps on the political stability as well.

The persistence of youth bulge in the Arab region remains an alarming phenomenon, despite the opportunities it may entail. The past decade has been associated with the events of the Arab Spring, which came in part as a reflection of the failure of some countries to absorb the impetus of youth bulge. Fears still exist of the recurrence of similar scenarios, as revolutions and protests are usually associated with young people, who have aspirations for a better future and a desire to change reality and who possess enormous capacities that need investment. If countries are unable to capitalize on these capacities, the youth bulge will turn into a burden and a challenge, particularly in light of the competition of other currents and actors to employ this youth bulge, since this facilitates the chances of their involvement in extremist currents, as was evident in several cases over the past years, where some of them joined terrorist organizations in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and other conflict areas.  This is in addition to the emergence of some other practices that may threaten political and societal stability.   


 4.    Persistent Demographic Imbalance

The intense human movements in conflict countries, particularly Syria, Iraq and Yemen, have created two main problems: Displacements (internally displaced people) and massive waves of asylum abroad. 

Syria represents a clear example of the impact of conflicts on the demographic structure. According to the data shown in Figure 2, on the population from 2000 to 2020, the population increased in Syria from 2000 to 2010, then it began to decrease, which is an unprecedented phenomenon in the Arab region. In 2015 the population reached 18 million, with a decrease of 3.2 million, compared to the population in 2010. Then the population declined again in 2020 to reach 17.5 million. On the other hand, estimates of Syrian refugees reflect more than the difference in population between 2010 and 2020. The number of refugees in neighboring countries and in other countries of the world is estimated at 6.7 million, most of whom are located in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 

Conversely, the number of displaced Syrians is estimated at about 6.7 million, bringing the number of people impacted by the crisis in Syria to more than 13 million Syrians, which is more than half of the population. So far, there are no concrete indications that the refugee crisis is coming to an end, but is rather expected to continue over the coming period. 

As for the demographic imbalance in Iraq, it is not only limited to issues pertaining to asylum and displacement. From 2003 until now, Iraq has lost many people of expertise in areas of strategic importance to other countries. On the other hand, Iraq has been able to achieve tangible progress with regard to refugees and displaced people, as the latter's number had reached six million Iraqis after the incursion of ISIS into Iraqi territory as of 2015. Within a short period, the Iraqi government was able to resettle nearly 4.8 million displaced in their homes or in alternative places of their choice, leaving only 1.2 million displaced people. 

Nevertheless, the desire of Iraqis to immigrate is still persistently high. 

This is in addition to the precarious situation in Somalia, which has about three million displaced people, as well as Sudan, since its problems keep resurging from time to time, in addition to it suffering from surges of asylum from neighboring countries.


In conclusion, based on the massive population movements, with millions of refugees and displaced people, as well as the persistence of disputes, political crises and wars in the Arab region, it is difficult to conclude that we are on the path towards a better situation. 2022 does presage better conditions, given the current facts and the continuing deterioration of the situation in Iraq and Syria, the current political movement in Sudan and the ongoing war in Yemen, in addition to the high population increase in countries with population weight, as well as the slowdown in the growth of the region’s economies and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. There may, however, be a glimpse of hope in Libya.