Report finds ‘quiet revolution’ in Middle East birth rates

The Arab world is in the midst of one of the most dramatic fertility declines in world history, a newly released Yale University study has found.

Described as “The Arab World’s Quiet Reproductive Revolution,” author Professor Marcia Inhorn’s research concludes that fertility rates will drop below replacement level in most Arab countries by the year 2100, with the region transitioning from “youth quake” to “elderquakes,” which is marked by a rapid growth in aging population.

Inhorn – who is also the author of “The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East” – says that Arab couples have brought down the region’s fertility rates, described as a “revolutionary” shift from among the highest to the lowest in the world. Citing UN data, the report found that seven of the world’s top 15 fertility declines have occurred in Arab countries. The demographic transition is said to be part of a much wider Muslim fertility decline, which has been described as a “quiet revolution […] hiding in plain sight”.

A number of reasons were given to explain the dramatic decline in fertility rates. The introduction of family planning programs and contraceptives in the Arab world is said to be an important part of this story. However, increased contraceptive usage is not the key factor, the report said. Instead, attitudinal change – or the desire for fewer children on the part of both men and women – has produced “the new Arab family,” a small nuclear family.

“Ideational change” is a key factor in Arab families choosing to limit their fertility through contraception in order to invest more time, energy and money into the education and success of each individual child.

Historical trends highlighted in the report show that, in the 1975–1980 period, women in all 17 Arab nations had fertility rates that far exceeded the world average at that time, which was 3.85 children per woman. Seven Arab countries – Algeria, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen – had fertility rates that were greater than 7.0, with the highest recorded 8.58 in Yemen.

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Today, only three of these Arab countries – Egypt, Jordan and Yemen – are said to have fertility rates above 3.0. The report found that in nine Arab countries – Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen – fertility rates have declined by nearly four births per woman.  Seven Arab countries with fertility rates dropping below 60 per cent are in the list of the world’s top 15 countries with the highest decline. These countries include Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, with Libya showing the largest fertility reduction of nearly 70 per cent.

The decline is predicted to continue well beyond 2018, with fertility rates expected to drop well below replacement level in most Arab countries by the year 2100. Replacement fertility, known as zero population growth, is the number of children per woman needed in order to maintain current population levels, which is said to be 2.1 rather than 2.0 to account for some infant deaths. By 2100, only Iraq and Sudan – with a fertility rate of 2.2 and 2.17 respectively – are predicted to remain slightly above the replacement level.

Examining the impact of this dramatic drop in fertility, the author said that the region will  transition from “youth quakes” of the kind that are already being felt across the Arab world to “elderquakes”, which is marked by a rapid growth in aging population. The report explained that the rapid aging of the population will have demographic consequences for the population as a whole, saying that currently few Arab nations are well equipped to handle millions of elders. The report did, however, dispel some of these concerns, saying that these “elderquakes” will not happen for several decades, but insisted that they could provoke potential crises of caretaking for millions of future senior citizens.

In the future, these Arab countries may join the ranks of the so-called “barren states”—nations with drastic losses of national population and ongoing labour shortages, the report concluded.

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