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The changing population

The total population of West Asia (excluding the Occupied Palestinian Territories) has almost tripled from an estimated 37.3 million in 1972 to 97.7 million in 2000, increasing less in the Mashriq than the Arabian Peninsula (see graph). The population of the Occupied Palestinian Territories was 1.13 million in 1972 and 3.19 million in 2000 (United Nations Population Division 2001).

Population (millions) by sub-region: West Asia

The West Asian population is still increasing at more than 3 per a year - by about 3.6 per cent a year in the Arabian Peninsular sub-region and by about 2.7 per cent a year in the Mashriq sub-region

Source: compiled from United Nations Population Division 2001

The regional population growth rate was still above 3 per cent in 2000, well above the global average of 1.3 per cent (United Nations Population Division 2001). There are, however, significant variations within the region - the population of the United Arab Emirates has increased more than eightfold since 1970 whereas in other countries the rate has been much lower or even negative. The highest growth rates are currently in the Yemen - 4.1 per cent a year at the end of the 20th century (United Nations Population Division 2001).

The high population growth rates can be partly attributed to national policies. For example, health improvements have brought about a decline in death rates of 50 per cent or more, increased life expectancy from 60.7 to 69.7 years, and more than halved the infant mortality rate from 75 to less than 30 per 1 000 live births. Despite a decrease in fertility rates in both sub-regions from more than 7 to 6.3 and 4.6 children per woman in the Arabian Peninsula and Mashriq respectively, present fertility rates are still much higher than the world average of 2.8 (United Nations Population Division 2001).

In most countries, the population is very young. In the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC, all countries in the Arabian Peninsula except Yemen), 43 per cent of the population is younger than 15 years (Al-Qudsi 1996) and in the Mashriq sub-region the figure ranges from 30 per cent in Lebanon to 48 per cent in Iraq (UNESCWA 1997). Almost 50 per cent of the Palestinian population is under the age of 15 years, increasing the dependency ratio (those under 15 and more than 64 years, who depend on the working population) to more than 100 per cent, very high by world standards (PCBS 1997). Despite rapid population growth during the past three decades, GCC countries still suffer from a low population base (Al-Qudsi 1996). While the increase in population has been partly due to high population growth rates, a large influx of foreign workers due to increasing demand for labour by the expanding industrial and service sectors has also been a significant factor. The total workforce in the GCC countries increased from 2 million in 1975 to 8 million by 1995. Foreign workers formed 70 per cent of this total workforce and up to 90 per cent in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, 83 per cent in Kuwait, 60 per cent in Bahrain and Oman, and 59 per cent in Saudi Arabia (Al-Qudsi 1996).