Youthful Populations in the Middle East

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Read Demographics of the Arab World, a brief comment by Richard P. Cincotta, posted on The New Security Beat, March 31, 2010.

A recent radio interview on the “Demographics of the Arab World” (March 2010) should be a must listen for those in the World Bank, where discussions of the Arab youth bulge are largely off the table. The interview with Magda Abu-Fadil of the American University of Beirut and Bernard Haykel of Princeton University suggests that scholars of the Arab world are not so timid, as also evidenced by UNDP’s 2009 Arab Human Development Report.

However, during the interview with Abu-Fadil and Haykel, Worldfocus’ Martin Savidge falls victim to two significant misconceptions that are worth mentioning for their pervasiveness among political science and economics communities:

1. Savidge believes that countries tend to risk political violence when their percentage of young adults is above 35 percent. This is close, but not quite correct. It’s the proportion of young adults in the adult population—i.e., the working-age population, as opposed to the population in general—that indicates an risk of fractious politics. Children (those below the age of 14) should not be counted in this indicator, yet in much of the literature they mistakenly are.
2. Savidge believes that large numbers of youth are an economic “good deal.” Here, Abu-Fadil and Haykel set him straight, noting that a bulge among the young adult population produces a demographic bonus only when fertility has significantly declined; the childhood cohorts are small and the subject of increased investment; and the youth moving into adulthood are educated.

These conditions are not the case for much of the Middle East.They are, however, the case in Iran and Turkey (non-Arab states at the borders of the Arab World), and will soon be the case in the Maghreb as well. The UNDP’s 2009 Arab Human Development Report fails to highlight the rapid fertility declines that have occurred across the Maghreb, from Morocco to Libya. UN Population Division demographer Patrick Gerland does, however, note these declines in a Worldfocus text interview.

Big changes could occur along the edges of the Arab world in the coming decade. Fertility decline, more recently, has made its way to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, although they still need a champion for women’s rights. Turkey had Ataturk, Iran had Reza Shah, and Tunisia had Habib Bourguiba. It’s no accident that these countries were the first to experience fertility decline and age structural changes—their leaders laid the groundwork decades ago.

Can a leader, however, with that amount of political guts and conviction emerge from the Saudi royal family? I’m doubtful.

Richard Cincotta is demographer-in-residence at the H.L. Stimson Center in Washington, DC.