Shifting fertility rates

While two-thirds of the population in the Arab region is under age-24, this youth bulge has different girths in different countries—but all are set to shrink over the coming decades thanks to changes in fertility.

While fertility rates in East Asia and Latin America began to fall in the 1960s, the Arab region was a slow starter, only picking up speed in the 1980s and 90s. As in other parts of the developing world, this demographic transition is powered by urbanisation, health improvements and the single biggest factor—women’s education.  The most dramatic examples of free-fall fertility are Tunisia and Lebanon, where rates have fallen from six to seven children per woman in 1960 to roughly two children per woman today, which means their populations are currently below replacement level, although demographers are noticing that fertility decline has stalled in some parts of North Africa.

A similar pattern can be seen in Egypt. The number of births per married woman here has fallen, from roughly five in 1980 to just three in 2008. Looking ahead, more than half of men and women aged 15-29 said their ideal family size is two kids, a response which varies little according to region, socio-economic class or educational level. For all this desire, however, reproductive health and rights advocates are concerned that young couples may not be able to realize this family size due to a drop in funding for national family planning programmes and with the political ascendance of Islamic conservatives, a shift away from population control as a priority in national planning and policies.

When it comes to fertility, increasing prosperity has been doubled-edged in the Arab region, encouraging a decline in some countries, while in others, oil and gas revenues and state subsidies have, until quite recently, encouraged large families in the Gulf states. There is considerable variation between neighbours: 65% of married women in Bahrain, for example, are using contraception and the total fertility rate stands at 2.6 children per woman, yet across the causeway in Saudi Arabia, it’s 4.5 children per woman and less than a third of married women are using birth control.  On average across the region, the fall in fertility has slowed since 2000, and rates set to come in line with East Asia and Latin America by 2025.

In the Arab region, contraceptive use—or rather non-use—seems worry some outsiders just as much as it does domestic policymakers with an eye on population control. Christian conservatives in the West fret over Europe’s so-called “demographic winter” in which Christian fertility rates hit rock bottom, and a pincer movement of multiplying Muslims—migrants spilling over from the Islamic world, combined with a fifth column of immigrants already in place—sweeps away the last vestiges of Western civilisation. For a thorough debunking of this population panic, see The Myth of the Muslim Tide by Doug Saunders.

For decades, Israel has been held up as the demographic doomsday scenario.  Ironically, it was victory over Egypt and Syria in 1967, and the annexation of Arab territory, that set the country on high alert against the danger of the rapidly procreating Arab, that would tip the balance of Israel as Jewish majority state and threaten its very foundations. In the 1960s, the total fertility rate of Israeli Muslims was 9.2 children per woman, almost three times higher than that of Israeli Jews. “The womb of the Palestinian woman,” Yasser Arafat used to say, “will defeat the Zionists.” A 1967 editorial in Ma’ariv, a leading newspaper of the day, encouraged bigger Jewish families, and birth control for  Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Israelis and Arabs have been dueling demographics ever since, each inclined to pump up Arab fertility to justify their ends. In 2003, for example, and then-Finance Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu remarked,  “If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens.” His comments sparked furious claims of racism. “Netnayahu’s demographic time bomb is a stink bomb and a racist one,” said Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab and member of the Knesset.  “The day is not far off when Netanyahu and his followers will set up roadblocks at the entrance to Arab villages to tie Arab women’s tubes and spray them with anti-spermicide [sic].”

“Voodoo demographics” is what Bennett Zimmerman, an Israeli  demographer, calls such alarmist talk from either side of the Arab-Israeli fence. In 2005, he and his colleagues created a stir when they re-analyzed census data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and found that the actual population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had been overstated by more than half, and was actually only 2.5 million rather than 3.8 million—what they termed the “million person gap”.

As for Israel itself, Zimmerman and his colleagues also ran the numbers and their findings run contrary to fears of an Israeli Arab demographic takeover. According to official statistics, in 2005 Israel was 76% Jewish and just under 20% Arab in 2005.  (Hieihel and Gurovich 2006); according to Zimmerman’s projections, Israel will be 63% Jewish by 2025, or possibly higher. This is in part because Israeli Jewish and Arab fertility rates are converging; the former inching up to just over 2.7 by 2004, and the latter falling dramatically to 4.0. Ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel take the commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply”, very seriously—a mission that has taken on greater urgency given turf wars with Arab neighbours. As a result, the ultra-Orthodox population has a total fertility rate of 7.7, and as high as 9 in some young communities—that’s more than three times the rate of Jewish Israeli women as a whole.

The upshot is that Israeli Jews have demographic momentum: in 2001, there were around 95,000 Jewish births and 41,000 Arab ones; by 2008, Jewish births had risen to over 117,000, but Arab births had declined to less than 40,000.  “The Arab demographic time bomb is, in many crucial respects, a dud,” Zimmerman and his colleagues concluded, arguing that their more realistic picture of the numbers should allow for less panicked policy-making.”