Arabs are now producing fewer babies as more girls join schools and work, early marriages decline and a trend to form smaller families gains momentum.
Better health services and increased awareness and education have also slashed infant mortality and sharply increased life expectancy.
The findings are included in a report by the UN Economic and Social Commission on Western Asia (ESCWA), which said lower fertility had depressed the Arab population growth although it remains above the global average.
As a result nearly 35 million people will be added during 2005-2010.
“Impressive declines in fertility have been recorded in the Arab region as a result of increased school enrolment among girls, stronger participation of women in the labour force, and the new trends towards “wait hood” or delayed marriage and the formation of smaller families,” said ESCWA, which groups the UAE and 12 other Arab nations, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
“According to the 2008 revision, the unweighted average total fertility rate for the Arab countries declined from 6.2 live births per woman in the period 1980-1985 to 3.3 in the period 2005-2010 compared to 2.6 at the world level, consequently reshaping the age structure of the population of the Arab region.”
But the report noted that the rate largely varies in individual countries.
For example, during 2005-2010, each of Lebanon, Tunisia and the UAE have fertility levels already below replacement level, whereas other countries are set to converge below 2.1 live births per woman by mid century, with the exception of Somalia, Palestine and Mauritania, it said.
As for infant mortality, it said the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented improvement in longevity and infant mortality at both global and regional levels.
“Today both men and women live 20 years more than they did 50 years ago.”
The report said the infant mortality rate (IMR), defined as the number of children per 1,000 live births who die in the first 12 months of life, is an important indicator of national development and health and has plummeted significantly in many countries during the period 1980-2010.
In 1980-1985, the IMR in the Arab world ranged between 21 per 1,000 live births in Bahrain to 137.8 per 1,000 live births in conflict-hit Somalia, averaging around 70.3 per 1,000 live births for the region.
The rate is projected to decline on the regional level to 34.3 per 1,000 live births in 2005-2010.
Currently the lowest IMRs are found in Qatar (8.3/1000), Kuwait (9.1/1000), the UAE (9.7/1000) and Bahrain (9.9/1,000), the report showed.
The other countries that are likely to remain in excess than the world’s average of 43.2 deaths per 1,000 live births are Somalia, Djibouti, Mauritania, the Sudan, Yemen and Comoros, according to ESCWA, which expected Somalia to retain the highest level of infant mortality through 2050 at 48.3 per 1,000 live births.
“Significant gains in life expectancy for both males and females were achieved in the Arab region during the past three decades. In 1980-1985, the unweighted average life expectancy at birth for the region was estimated at 58.8 years for males and 62.2 years for females; this increased to 67.5 and 71.2 years for
males and females in 2005-2010 respectively,” ESCWA said.
“In other words, both men and women in the Arab region are currently living nine years longer than they did in the 1980s…..this increasing trend is projected to continue for all Arab countries to varying degrees.”
In the GCC, the richest region in the Arab world, life expectancy at birth is expected to keep on rising to reach a maximum of 82 years for both sexes in each of Kuwait and the UAE by mid century, the report said.
Conversely, the estimated figures for Somalia, Mauritania, the Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti, showed that they were not able to meet the life expectancy target of 65 years in 2005 set by the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. Moreover, these countries, in addition to Comoros, will unlikely meet the target of 70 years in 2015.
ESCWA estimated that the total population of the Arab countries has more than doubled between 1980 and 2009, surging from 173 million in 1980 to 352.2 million in 20091 or 5.2 per cent of the world population.
“Assuming that fertility levels continue to decline according to the medium variant scenario, the total population of the region is projected to reach 428.4 million or 5.6 per cent of the world population by 2020,” it said.
It noted that population size varies considerably between Arab nations, with Egypt accounting for 23.6 per cent of the Arab population in 2009 (83 million), followed by the Sudan (42.3 million or 12 per cent); Algeria (34.9 million or 9.9 per cent); Morocco (32 million or 9.1 per cent); Iraq (30.7 million or 8.7 per cent); Saudi Arabia (25.7 million or 7.3 per cent) and Yemen (23.6 million or 6.7 per cent). Egypt is projected to remain by far the most populous and to reach a total population of 91.8 million in 2015 and 98.6 million in 2020.
At the other end of the scale, Comoros, Bahrain, Djibouti and Qatar will remain the countries with the smallest population size, with each accounting for less than 0.5 per cent of that of the Arab region, according to ESCWA.
The report showed that since 1980, the Arab population has grown at an average rate of 2.45 per cent per annum as compared to 1.5 per cent for the rest of the world.
The rate of population growth in the region has, however, been declining and it is expected that it will continue to grow at a slower pace to reach 1.87 per cent in 2009-2015 and 1.78 per cent during the period 2009-2020, it added.
The rate of population growth prevailing in the Arab world over the last three decades resulted in a gain of 179 million persons, that is, 6.2 million persons were added annually to the total population of the region.
ESCWA said the increments were eventually concentrated in the most populous countries whereby Egypt accounted for an additional 1.3 million annually and contributed 21.5 per cent to the annual 1980-2009 population increment.
“The Arab population will keep on growing as a result of the population momentum as the large birth cohorts were and are still produced by the large childbearing population from the previous generation,” it said.
“The high rate of population growth prevailing in the last three decades will increase the population increment to a maximum point by adding 35 million people between 2005 and 2010 …this population momentum will continue to hamper the capacity of the region to deal with the challenges posed by social change, economic strains, globalization and political instabilities.”