The Fertility Revolution of the Arab Countries Following the Arab Spring

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While the Arab Spring was primarily a revolution of young civilians against the old regimes, its influence on fertility patterns and natalist policies has not received sufficient attention. The first part of this article examines fertility in Arab countries on the eve of the uprisings, and the second looks into the patterns from the decade following the onset of the protests through the outbreak of Covid-19. The third part analyzes the impact of the Arab Spring on the states’ natalist policies, and the final section deals with the socioeconomic challenges imposed by the current demographic structures of these countries. The conclusion is that during the 2010s, the non-oil Arab countries went through two fertility revolutions, with an increase in the first few years and a substantial decrease after. Will the Arab states achieve the targeted replacement-level fertility rate, as was the case in many developing countries around the world over the past generation, including many non-Arab Islamic countries? And what are the socioeconomic and political consequences of this fertility revolution in the Arab countries?

While the causes differed in each country, in general it could be said that the Arab Spring was a revolution of young civilians against the old regimes—from Tunisia to Egypt and on to Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and Syria. While both the political and, to a lesser extent, the socioeconomic consequences of the uprisings have been extensively analyzed, far less attention has been accorded to some of the most prominent issues affecting that younger generation: fertility patterns and governments’ natalist policies. The aim of this article is to examine those areas and consider how they affect politics, economics, and society.

The first part looks at the fertility patterns in the region prior to the Arab Spring, distinguishing between the oil countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the non-oil states.1 The second part examines changes in fertility during the decade that followed by dividing Arab states into three categories: those in which the regime collapsed and was replaced (Egypt and Tunisia); those in which, despite massive strikes, the old regime survived (Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria); and the GCC countries, where the reform movements had little political or cultural impact. The article’s third part analyzes the effects of the Arab Spring on the natalist policies of both the oil and non-oil countries. The final part deals with the most burdensome socioeconomic challenges facing all Arab countries in the study: rapid population growth and increasing pressure on employment.

The article does not deal with the countries where the old regime collapsed into a perpetual state of civil war (Libya and Yemen) or those where the old regime survives but remains unstable (Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon). The vital statistical data of these countries are partial at best, and, due to the vast emigration from these countries, their de facto populations are constantly changing.2


Until the late 1960s, fertility patterns in the region featured both high birth and death rates, in line with demographic transition theory.3 During that decade, the total fertility rate (TFR) in both the oil and non-oil Arab countries was around seven children per woman (Table 1).4 However, following the 1973 oil boom, the TFR did not decline as it did in all other developing countries at the time—despite the sharp reduction in crude death rates (CDR) for all Arab countries as they experienced unprecedented economic growth.

TABLE 1. Total Fertility Rates in Select Arab Countries, 1960–2020.
Year Egypt Jordan Tunisia Morocco Algeria Saudi Arabia Kuwait Oman Bahrain
1960 6.1 6.8 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.2 7.3 7.2 7.1
1970 5.2 7.1 6.5 7.1 7.4 7.3 7.2 7.2 6.7
1980 5.2 7.3 5.3 6.9 7.3 7.3 7.2 7.2 5.7
1990 3.5 5.8 3.7 4.5 5.1 7.0 6.2 6.5a 4.8b
2000 3.3 3.8 2.5 3.1 2.7 4.0 4.9 6.2 3.5
2008 2.9 3.9 2.1 2.5 2.4 3.3 4.2 3.3 2.7
2009 2.9 3.8 2.1 2.6 2.6 3.2 3.3 2.8
2010 2.9 3.8 2.1 2.6 2.8 3.2 3.7 2.7
2011 2.8 3.8 2.2 2.6 2.8 3.1 4.1 3.7 2.5
2012 2.8 3.5 2.2 2.6 2.8 3.0 4.0 3.7 2.7
2013 3.5 3.5 2.3 2.6 2.8 3.0 3.9 3.9 2.7
2014 3.5 3.2 2.0 2.6 2.8 2.9 3.9 3.9 2.9
2015 3.3 3.1 2.4 2.5 3.1 2.8 3.7 4.0 2.8
2016 3.3 3.0 2.3 2.5 3.1 2.7 3.6 4.0 2.6
2017 3.3 2.6 2.2 2.5 3.0 3.5 4.0 2.5
2018 2.9 2.6 2.2 2.4 3.0 2.5 3.4 3.9 2.3
2019 2.9 2.7 2.2 2.4 3.0 2.5 3.1 3.7 2.2
2020 2.9 2.6 1.9 2.4 2.9 2.5 3.0 3.5 2.0

Sources: Arab Republic of Egypt, CAPMAS, Statistical Yearbook, various issues; Arab Republic of Egypt, CAPMAS, Egypt Family Health Survey-2021 [EFHS-2021] (Cairo, June 2022); Jordan Department of Statistics, Statistical Yearbook, various issues; Jordan Department of Statistics, Jordan Population and Family Health Survey 2017-18 [JPFHS-2017-18] (March 2019); Royaume du Maroc, Ministère de la Santé, Enquête Nationale sur la Population et la Santé Familiale (ENPSF)-2011, Rapport Préliminaire (Rabat, 2011); Al-Jumhuriyya al-Tunisiyya (Tunisia), Wizarat al-Tanmiyya, al-Nashriyya al-Ihsaa al-Sanawiyya Li-Tunis, various years (Tunis) (Arabic); Sultanate of Oman, National Centre for Statistics and Information, Statistical Yearbook (Muscat); Sultanate of Oman, National Centre for Statistics and Information, Facts & Figures, various issues (Muscat); Kingdom of Bahrain, Information & eGovernment Authority, Bahrain Open Dada Portal; The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, General Authority of Statistics (GASTAT), Annual Statistics Yearbook, various issues (Riyadh); GASTAT, Indicators for Fertility by Nationality (Riyadh); GASTAT, Population Characteristic Survey-2017 (Riyadh, 2018); GASTAT, Household Health Survey, various issues (Riyadh); State of Kuwait, Central Statistical Bureau, Annual Statistical Abstract, various issues (Kuwait); State of Kuwait, Central Statistical Bureau, Annual Bulletin for Vital StatisticsBirths and Deaths, various issues (Kuwait); African Development Bank Group, African Statistical Yearbook, various issues (Tunis); UN, Demographic Yearbook, various issues (New York); ECWA/ESCWA, Demographic and Related Socio-Economic Data Sheets for Countries of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, various issues (Beirut, Baghdad and Amman); ESCWA, Data Portal; World Bank data,

– No data available.

a 1988 data.

b 1992 data.


Details are in the caption following the image


In Jordan, for example, the CDR went from 15.7 in 1970 to 10 in 1980, but the TFR increased slightly.6 Similarly, Egypt’s TFR did not decline despite a plummeting death rate in line with its anti-natalist policies, which began in the mid-1960s.7 This was also the case in Morocco, where the TFR remained stable during the 1960s and 1970s (see Table 1). The only two Arab countries where the TFR markedly decreased during the 1970s were Tunisia, which started to implement an effective family planning policy in the mid-1960s, and Lebanon following the onset of the civil war in April 1975.8

Until the 1990s, the common interpretation of the high fertility rates, despite the rapid economic development, was that Islamic cultures resist family planning and that women were second-class citizens, which could be seen in their low labor-force participation.9 In the mid-1980s, however, the TFR in nearly all Arab states, oil and non-oil alike, started to decrease, picking up speed during the first half of the 1990s despite the flourishing of Islamic fundamentalism. Therefore, it appears in this case that there is no direct connection between culture and fertility rate. Moreover, in many non-Arab Islamic countries, the TFR rapidly declined during the final two decades of the 20th century, including in the world’s largest Islamic country, Indonesia, where the TFR moved from 4.3 in 1980 to 2.5 in 2000.10

It appears that the sharp fertility declines in the non-oil Arab countries, with the exception of Lebanon, resulted from three factors. The most prominent was the steady diminishing of Arab socialism, beginning in the mid-1980s.11 Since the two most prominent aspects of this economic policy were vast public-sector employment and high subsidies for basic foodstuffs and energy products, the weakening of socialism led to a substantial increase in the cost of living and rising unemployment—especially among new entrants to the workforce. The second factor was the changing employment policies of the GCC countries, from preferences for Arabs to non-Arabs.12 By the early 1990s, the unemployment rates in all of the non-oil Arab countries were in double digits. Among those under 24 years old, unemployment was extremely high.13 The third factor was the intensification of family-planning programs, which included two major components: large-scale distribution of contraceptives, even in remote areas, and the availability of all of the accompanying health services; and Islamic “legalization” of the use of modern contraceptives, mainly through fatwas issued by senior clerics.14 Indeed, at the end of the millennium, the TFR in all of the non-oil Arab countries was substantially lower than a decade before.

The Oil States And Fertility

A discussion of the fertility patterns of the GCC countries must take into consideration the quality of the vital statistical data. The vast majority of the demographic data published by international organizations do not distinguish between the indigenous and foreign populations in a country. For example, in the World Bank’s data, the TFR of Kuwait in 2020 was 2.1.15 However, this rate was actually 3.0 among nationals and well below 2.0 among foreign women. As well, the UN reported that Kuwait’s crude birth rate in 2020 was 11.8.16 However, for the Kuwaiti nationals, it was really more than twice that figure: 23.0.17 To avoid this problem, the data for the GCC countries in this article relate to their national populations only.

In the oil states, following the October 1973 oil boom, a unique demographic pattern developed: Despite the rapid decline of the crude death rate due to economic improvement, fertility rates remained extremely high. In Saudi Arabia, for example, although the crude death rate declined from 21.4 in 1970 to 7.0 in 1990, the total fertility rate in 1990 (7.0) remained nearly unchanged from 1970 (7.2).18 This was the case in the other GCC countries, as well (Table 1).

This unique demographic pattern of extremely high TFR despite the sharp economic development was driven by two main factors. Most important was the rentier nature of these countries as a result of the increase of the per capita rental income that followed the rise of oil exports and prices.19 As these states transformed from poor to rich within only one decade, they became the main source of earning for their citizens. The rentier policies included employment of the vast majority of nationals in the public sector, with high salaries, early retirement, full subsidies for health and educational services, and high subsidies for foodstuffs and energy products. These benefits promoted high fertility, as they did not impose on citizens the real cost of living.

The second factor was the implementation of the world’s most extensive pro-natalist policies, which aimed to dramatically increase the percentage of the workforce filled by nationals. In addition to rentierism, the policies included building housing projects for families, encouraging early marriage through large grants, and providing generous child allowances.20

However, during the 1990s, the TFR of most GCC countries markedly declined. The sharpest drop was in Saudi Arabia, from 7.0 in 1990 to 4.0 in 2000. The TFR in Kuwait and Bahrain also moved substantially lower. In Oman, on the other hand, despite the implementation of a birth-spacing program as early as 1994, the decline was quite minor: from 6.5 in 1988 to 6.2 in 2000 (Table 1).21 The main drivers of this substantial fertility decline were the sharp improvement in the educational level of the national women in the main reproductive age group (20–39) and the rise in unemployment among nationals due to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the extremely low oil prices that persisted throughout the decade.22

During the first decade of the 21st century, however, fertility rates in the non-oil and GCC states moved in opposite directions. While the TFR stagnated in non-oil states, despite the family-planning programs, it continued to decline steadily in oil countries (with Oman the exception), even without such programs. Hence, Egypt’s TFR was 3.2 on average between 2000 and 2003, barely moving to 3.0 from 2005 to 2008.23 A similar trend of stability occurred in Jordan, Algeria, and Morocco.24 The only exception was Tunisia, which achieved the targeted replacement-level rate during the second half of the decade (Table 1).


During the second decade of the 21st century, the total fertility rate in most countries around the world was relatively stable. For example, the average TFR of EU members declined slightly, from 1.57 in 2010 to 1.50 in 2020.25 China’s nudged up from 1.63 to 1.70.26 This was not the case in the Arab states.

In the first half of the decade, the fertility rates of some non-oil countries continued to decline, but in others they increased. This was most pronounced in Egypt, where the TFR increased from 2.8 in 2011 to a peak of 3.5 in 2013–2014, higher than two decades earlier. Accordingly, its crude birth rate increased from 28.8 in 2010 to 31.2 in 2012.27 A similar trend occurred in Algeria, where the TFR increased from 2.8 in 2010 to 3.1 in 2015 and 2016. Even Tunisia’s TFR ticked up slightly, while Morocco’s stagnated. The GCC countries were mixed. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the TFRs continued to decline as they had during the 2000s. Oman and Bahrain, however, experienced slight increases (Table 1).

During the second half of the 2010s, however, the TFR markedly declined across all Arab countries. The most prominent decreases were in the GCC states. By the end of the decade, the TFRs of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were lower than those of Egypt and Jordan. Bahrain, a pure rentier state, succeeded in reducing its TFR by 40 percent within a mere two decades. Kuwait’s also went down substantially, from more than 4 before the Arab Spring to 3.0 in 2020. In Egypt and Jordan, the age-specific fertility rate among women under 25 declined much less than among those aged 25–34.28 In Bahrain, on the other hand, the main fertility decline was among women in the 15 to 24 age group. Tables 2, 3, and 4 indicate these differences.

TABLE 2. Egypt’s Age-Specific Fertility Rate, 1979–2020.
Age Group 1979–1980 1986–1988 1993–1995 1997–2000 2002–2005 2005–2008 2011–2014 2018–2020
1519 78 72 61 51 48 50 56 50
2024 256 220 200 196 175 169 213 170
2529 280 243 210 208 194 185 200 169
3034 239 182 140 147 125 122 134 112
3539 139 118 81 75 63 59 69 53
4044 53 41 27 24 19 17 17 13
4549 12 6 7 4 6 2 4 2
TFR 5.3 4.4 3.6 3.5 3.2 3.0 3.5 2.9

SourcesEDHS-2014, 43, table 4.4; EDHS-2021, 48, table 5.

TABLE 3. Jordan’s Age-Specific Fertility Rate, 1990–2020.
Age Group 1990 1997 2002 2007 2009 2012 2017–18
1519 49 43 28 28 32 26 27
2024 219 172 150 148 152 139 109
2529 296 246 202 212 238 209 156
3034 264 206 184 162 182 180 137
3539 188 144 122 121 126 111 88
4044 79 48 43 41 37 34 27
4549 19 11 5 6 3 3 2
TFR 5.6 4.4 3.7 3.6 3.8 3.5 2.7

SourcesJPFHS-2017-18, 83, table 5.4.

TABLE 4. Bahrain’s Age-Specific Fertility Rate, 2013–2020 (national women only).
Age Group 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
15–19 11 11 10 8 7 6 5 4
20–24 103 105 101 92 88 75 65 55
25–29 165 168 166 162 151 143 138 129
30–34 145 150 144 142 135 125 119 114
35–39 93 101 99 88 88 83 73 73
40–44 28 33 33 32 31 32 29 26
45–40 3 4 3 3 3 2 2 2
TFR 2.7 2.9 2.8 2.6 2.5 2.3 2.2 2.0

Sources: Bahrain Open Dada Portal, table 4,

The overall data reveal similarities among the fertility patterns of non-oil Arab states over the decade after the uprisings. There was no prominent distinction between the countries where the old regimes collapsed (Egypt and Tunisia) and those where they survived (Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria). Moreover, one cannot find any differences between the fertility patterns of republics and monarchies.

Causes Of The Fertility Rise In Non-Oil States

The fact that in some of these countries the fertility rates did not decline following the onset of the Arab Spring can be explained by two main factors:

The Return Of Arab Socialism

All governments, whether they survived the Arab Spring or were new orders emerging out of the uprisings, implemented expansionary fiscal policies to stop the steady decline in living standards. The most prominent of these tools were increases in subsidies and public-sector wages, as well as the recruitment of large numbers of new employees into the public sector.

Increasing subsidies. The main cause of the deterioration in living standards during the second half of the 2000s was inflation much higher than the global average, caused by sharp increases in energy and food prices.29 At the onset of the protests, all non-oil Arab governments boosted their subsidies. Morocco, in February 2011, “decided to almost double funds allocated to state subsidies to counter an increase in global commodity prices amid revolts in some Arab countries.”30 The following year, the subsidies for foodstuffs and energy products equaled Morocco’s budgetary deficit—6.5 percent of the total GDP.31 The same held for Egypt, where such subsidies constituted nearly all of the deficit.32 In 2012, Jordan’s electricity and petroleum subsidies amounted to $1.7 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively.33 Tunisia’s 2013 budget allocated 20 percent for food and energy subsidies and 36 percent for public-sector salaries.34

Boosting public-sector wages. In Tunisia, for example, they went up by 4.7 percent on average in 2011, while the security forces were provided with additional benefits.35 Jordan also increased them following the outbreak of protests, and the minimum wage was raised in 2012.36

Recruiting a large number of new employees to the public sector. This helped alleviate the employment pressure of educated youth.37 For example, in 2012, the newly elected Tunisian government announced the recruitment of some 20,000 new civil employees.38

The Decline In Governmental Family-Planning Activities

In all of the non-oil Arab countries, not only did family-planning activities suffer due to the political turmoil, as was the case with many other public services, but the authorities deliberately narrowed anti-natalist activities. This was caused by the strengthening of the Islamic fundamentalist movements that opposed state-run family planning.39

The disruptions in family planning were most acute in remote areas. Indeed, the rise in the fertility rates in poor rural areas drove the national-level stagnations—or even increases.40 This was most evident in Egypt. While the TFR in the rural area of Upper Egypt was 3.6 in 2008, it increased to 4.1 six years later. The largest increase, more than 18 percent, was among women under 25. In the major cities, on the other hand, the TFR remained almost unchanged.41 Jordan had a similar divide between cities and rural areas. The TFR in Ma‛an changed little between 2007 and 2012, standing at 4.1 that year, and in Jarash it went from 3.8 to 4.3 in that period. However, in Amman the TFR declined from 3.4 in 2007 to 3.2 in 2012.42


In the mid-2010s, the fertility patterns of the non-oil Arab countries changed almost simultaneously. This was not a “normal,” gradual decline as in many developing countries during the first two decades of the 21st century. Turkey’s TFR, for example, declined from 2.5 in 2000 to 2.1 in 2010 and to 2.0 in 2019.43 A similar process occurred in Latin America. In Mexico, the TFR moved from 2.7 in 2000 to 2.3 in 2010 and 1.9 in 2019; in Brazil, it decreased from 2.3 in 2000 to 1.7 in 2019.44

History shows that extreme fertility decline is the result of either radical political-security changes, such as during World War II, or of far-reaching economic crises like the Great Depression. In the non-oil Arab countries, the most famous fertility decline occurred in Egypt between 1967 and 1974, due to fighting four wars and experiencing severe recession.45 After 1975, Egypt’s fertility rate not only stopped falling, it substantially increased.46

The fertility decline in the non-oil Arab countries since the mid-2010s, however, occurred in a period of both improved political stability and economic recovery. Egypt’s GDP growth rate, for example, increased from 1.8 percent in 2011—stagnation in per capita terms—to 2.9 percent in 2014, the first year of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency. It peaked at 5.6 percent in 2019, the year before the pandemic. Jordan’s GDP remained stable at about 2.3–3 percent from 2012 through the onset of Covid-19. Tunisia’s growth rate radically improved, from -2 percent in 2011 to 2–3 percent from 2013 through the coronavirus outbreak.47

What explains the unusual decrease?

Shifts In Fiscal Policy

After the shock of the Arab Spring and the rise in public spending, the non-oil governments began to adopt viable fiscal policies. These included substantial cuts to subsidies and the absorption of new employees into the already overstaffed public sectors. The first two countries to act, Morocco and Jordan, were the most politically stable. In 2013, the Moroccan government started to reduce subsidies for gasoline and diesel fuel, almost completely canceling them the following year, and Jordan took a similar path in 2012 and 2013.48 For its part, Egypt began to cut subsidies as el-Sisi settled into power.49 Along with the narrowing of the public-sector wage bill, this was part of an ambitious program aimed at restoring growth and narrowing the deficit.50 The sharp decline in oil prices over the two years starting in mid-2014 mitigated the effects of this new macroeconomic policy.51 Therefore, despite the reductions of energy and food subsidies, the inflation rate was still bearable. In 2013 and 2014, it was 10 percent in Egypt, a little more than 5 percent in Tunisia, and less than 2 percent in Morocco and Jordan.52

However, the increase in oil prices from March 2016 through the beginning of the pandemic led to a spike in inflation, as the non-oil states did not counter this with subsidy hikes. Egypt’s inflation rate jumped from 10.4 percent in 2015 to 13.1 percent in 2016, reaching 29.5 percent in 2017 and 14.4 percent a year later. In Tunisia, the rate jumped from 3.6 to 7.3 percent in that period, and Jordan saw an increase from -0.8 percent in 2016 to 4.4 percent in 2018.53 Without a corresponding wage compensation, the purchasing power of the vast majority of the population declined.

Intensifying Family-Planning Activities

As non-oil states like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco adopted austerity measures, they started to act more intensively in the area of family planning to curb the rapid population growth. El-Sisi admitted as early as 2014 that population increase was a problem, and he declared in July 2017, “Overpopulation and terrorism are Egypt’s two real threats.”54 In June 2015, the government initiated the National Population Strategy, aiming to reduce the total fertility rate to 2.4 by 2030.55 This would be achieved through financial incentives to keep children in school, massive expansion of family-planning services, and increasing public awareness of the benefits of small families.56 In early 2019, Egypt launched a public campaign, “Itnein Kifaya” (“Two Is Enough”), to challenge the tradition of large families in rural areas where children, mainly boys, are considered “life insurance” due to their contributions to family income. The program focused on the 10 poorest districts with the highest fertility rates. Young mothers were invited to seminars with clerics who explained that Islam allows the use of contraceptives. Doctors and nurses discussed medical and practical issues concerning the use of modern birth control.57

In Jordan, the Higher Population Council established the Reproductive Health Strategy, aiming to reduce the TFR from 3.5 to 2.1 between 2012 and 2030. This would be achieved through family-planning services and media campaigns reinforcing the importance of reducing fertility.58 Tunisia’s family-planning policies did not change, despite the victory of the Islamist Ennahda party in the post-uprising elections. Clinics run by the National Office for Family and Population continued to provide services free of charge. Moreover, abortions, which were legalized in 1973, continued to be permitted without any restrictions.59 Accordingly, Tunisia’s TFR remained at the targeted replacement-level rate.

The Moroccan Ministry of Health in 2013 expanded the range of contraceptives available to low-income and rural women who were unable to acquire them from the private sector. This increase of family-planning services boosted the contraceptive-prevalence rate from 19 percent in the early 1980s to 71 percent in 2018. There was also a decline in the TFR of rural areas, from 3.2 in 2011 to 2.8 in 2018. This was the major factor in the country’s overall fertility decline, as the rate in urban centers was already quite low in the 1990s. Despite this, the age-specific fertility rate in rural areas among those aged 15 to 19 was still high in 2018: 32.5, compared to 11.5 in the urban centers.60

The substantial expansion of family-planning activities, in line with the subsidy cuts and the halt in absorption of new employees in the public sector, was possible due to the decline of Islamism and outside pressure for austerity. In just a few years, Egypt saw the collapse of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, followed by the eradication of any Islamist opposition by el-Sisi’s regime. Ennahda failed to hold onto power through the Tunisian elections of 2014, and the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda could not oust the Assad regime. In addition, the defeat of ISIS led to an overall feeling that the fundamentalist option was unrealistic. Hence, governments in non-oil Arab countries could operate relatively freely in family planning.

On the economic front, the public spending unleashed in reaction to the Arab Spring resulted in deficits and decreases in foreign reserves to dangerous levels. In early 2012, Egypt’s reserves were estimated at only $15.7 billion, compared to $36 billion in January 2011; they fell to $13.6 billion a year later.61 In Tunisia, the fiscal deficit widened from 1.1 percent of GDP in 2010 to 3.5 percent in 2011 and 7 percent in 2012.62 When these countries approached the International Monetary Fund for low-interest loans of last resort, the organization demanded painful reforms, including massive subsidy cuts and increases of indirect taxes to ensure that the countries would be able to pay the money back.63


Although fertility in oil countries started to decline in the 1990s, the rates dropped sharply in the 2010s. It appears that three factors help explain why the process sped up: a pullback from extreme pro-natalism, the reduction in oil prices, and greater openness to Western norms.

Withdrawal From The Extreme Pro-Natalist Approach

During the 2000s, and even more during the 2010s, authorities in GCC states grew disenchanted with the practicability of broad labor-force nationalization (sometimes called “indigenization” or “localization”). This had been one of the most prominent causes of their pro-natalist approach following the oil boom. In reality, the policy of replacing foreign labor with nationals was successful only in the public sector, where the government, not the market, controlled wages and labor conditions. In the private sector, this policy failed; despite financial incentives, employers continued to prefer foreign workers.64 Thus, these countries experienced segmented labor markets—national workers in the public sector and foreign workers in the private. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the number of nationals employed by the public sector in 2019 was 1.23 million, representing 96 percent of employees in that sector. Employment in private firms, however, was 1.7 million (of whom 556,511 were women), with the number of self-employed representing only 20.6 percent of private-sector workers.65 In Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, the share of nationals employed in the private sector was tiny.66

It appears that high fertility had become a burden instead of an advantage. It not only did not decrease the dependence on foreign labor, it created immense pressure on the public sector to steadily increase the absorption of young nationals to avoid high unemployment.67 Paradoxically, Oman, which in 1994 was the first among the GCC countries to implement an official family-planning policy, had the highest fertility rate among these countries in 2020, nearly three decades later: 3.5 (see  Table  1).

Waking Up From The ‘Oil Price Circle’ Illusion

In contrast to previous periods of low oil prices (the second half of the 1980s, the late 1990s, and late 2008 to early 2009), the plunging oil price since mid-2014, driven by the US production boom, was treated as permanent.68 President Donald Trump backed the increase of shale production, which further boosted this perception. The Gulf states therefore saw reducing dependence on oil revenues as a short-run, not a long-term, necessity. All of the GCC countries immediately adopted macroeconomic policies to diversify their economies, including Saudi Vison 2030, Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, Qatar National Vision 2030, Kuwait Vision 2035, and Oman Vision 2040. The two principal aims were to reduce the dependence on oil and gas revenues and increase the labor-force participation rate of nationals. This would, in turn, increase family income from wages instead of governmental allowances and subsidies.

This would be achieved mainly through increasing female labor-force participation. As the Saudi Vision 2030 noted, “Our economy will provide opportunities for everyone—men and women—so they may contribute to the best of their abilities.”69 To boost women’s workforce numbers, Saudi authorities lifted many barriers, including the prohibitions on driving and gender mixing in the workplace. Accordingly, female labor-force participation rapidly increased in all GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia. In 2019, the total number of Saudi women employed in the public and private sectors amounted to 1.06 million, up from 864,030 in 2014.70 This was a higher rate than the growth in the number of women in the most relevant age group (25–35).71 The higher female labor-force participation will enable the GCC governments to gradually reduce subsidies and increase indirect taxes (mainly value-added taxes), which foreigners and tourists also pay.

More Openness To ‘Western Norms

Through social media, the electronic press, and close contacts with Western culture, through both tourism and the workplace, the GCC’s younger generations are exposed to “Western norms,” including in demographics and family planning.

Signs Of The Rapid Fertility Decline Among GCC Countries

The most prominent expressions were the rise in the ages of people in their first marriage and the steep increase in the prevalence of contraception. The GCC countries have moved away from the traditional model of early and universal marriage to marriage at a much older age. Still, in contrast to Western countries and developed East Asian countries, marriage remains almost universal. Currently, most women in the GCC marry after the age of 24; only 5 percent do so before the age of 20.72

Although the data are not complete for all of these states, there appears to have been a sharp rise in the contraceptive-prevalence rate, even in Saudi Arabia, the most traditional of these societies. According to the 2016 Saudi Demographic Survey, among married women 20 to 24 who were not pregnant, the rate was 24.8 percent. For those 25 to 29, it was 30.9 percent.73 According to the 2018 Saudi Household Health Survey, the overall contraceptive-prevalence rate of married women 15 to 49 was 32.9 percent. This indicates a much higher rate for those under 35.74


After the onset of the Arab Spring, two mini “fertility transitions” occurred in the non-oil countries: an increase until the mid-2010s and a decrease since then. It appears that family-planning services and anti-natalist propaganda were not enough to decrease the TFR below 3 among strata other than the urban educated middle and upper classes. Instead, it was the sharp rise in the cost of living, caused by subsidy cuts and limits on public-sector employment, that made having more than two children unaffordable.

By the end of the 2010s, the common TFR in the major cities of the non-oil Arab countries was around the replacement-level rate. The reason the average fertility rates in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco are still much above replacement rate is the presence of “poverty islands,” mainly in remote areas, where early marriage of women and the consequently higher fertility rate are common. In Jordan, while the TFR in Amman and Karak was 2.3 between 2017 and 2018, it was more than 4 in Mafraq and 3.5 in Jarash and Ajloun.75 The same was true in Egypt: The TFR in the major cities was 2.2, but it was as high as 3.6 in the rural areas of Upper Egypt.76 As long as this urban-rural divide persists, the average TFR at the national level will remain much above the targeted rate.

Still, despite the fertility decline, the gap between the number of births and the number of deaths (the natural increase) continues to be very high: 1.57 million in Egypt in 2020.77 This is a result of demographic momentum. Given the broadly based age pyramid, even if the TFR declines to the replacement-level, the natural increase will continue to be positive because the number of women of reproductive age will continue to increase for a number of decades before finally stabilizing. This rapid population growth imposes pressure on the labor market, public services, and subsidies on food and fuel, whose prices have spiked since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As for the GCC countries, it appears that increases in women’s education were not enough to bring about a major decline in fertility. The decrease occurred only after their employment opportunities improved. The most rapid decline was among the 20–29 age group. The case of Bahrain clearly indicates it: The age-specific fertility rate in that cohort went down by as much as 42 percent between 2013 and 2020 (Table 4). However, the sharp increase in labor-force participation among young women in the oil states created huge unemployment. By 2021, the jobless rate of Saudi women was 24.4 percent—higher than in the non-oil Arab countries.78 This was driven by female nationals’ not wanting, and being unable, to compete with foreigners in the private sector, as well as overstaffing in the public sector. Within only one generation, the GCC states went from national labor shortages to vast surpluses. Consequently, there is no longer any reason to continue to implement the previous pro-natalist policies.

In recent years, all Arab states have been going through a fertility revolution. Will this eventually spread to the remote rural areas of the non-oil Arab countries? Will the governments achieve the targeted replacement rate at the national level, as was the case in many developing countries worldwide, including many non-Arab Islamic countries?

Achieving the “demographic gift” age pyramid, with at least 70 percent of the population at working age, is a precondition for socioeconomic takeoff.79 This was the case with the “Asian Tigers” during the 1970s and 1980s, and it has occurred in places like Turkey and Brazil in this century. However, fertility decline caused by improving rates of education and labor-force participation among women can create pressures on the national economies to provide sufficient work opportunities. For this to happen, the GDP growth rate should be much higher than the increase in the rate of the working-age population.

In light of the current global inflation and slow GDP growth rate, is it a realistic option? If the Arab countries fail to achieve this goal, what will be the political consequences of high unemployment among the young and educated?




1 The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

2 The vital statistics include data on births, deaths, migration, marriage, and divorce.

3 The fundamental part of demographic transition theory is that the fertility rate is a consequence of the death rate, aiming, first and foremost, to “produce” a sufficient labor force. Thus, with an improvement of the economic situation, which leads to a sharp decline of the death rate, the fertility rate declines accordingly. The academic literature on demographic transition theory is immense. A summary of the theory appears in John B. Casterline, “Demographic Transition,” in Encyclopedia of Population, ed. Paul Demeny and Geoffery McNicoll (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003), 210–216.

4 The TFR is the average number of children that would be born to a woman during her childbearing years (15–49). The TFR is the most useful measure of fertility trends.

5 The term “oil boom” relates to the sudden price increase in oil from $2.50 per barrel before the war between Arab states and Israel in October 1973 to more than $11 in early January 1974. The CDR is the ratio between the number of deaths and the total mid-year population during a given year, multiplied by 1,000.

6 UN Economic Commission for Western Asia (ECWA), Demographic and Related Socio-Economic Data Sheets for Countries of the Economic Commission for Western Asia, no. 2 (1978); ECWA, Demographic and Related Socio-Economic Data Sheets for Countries of the Economic Commission for Western Asia, no. 3 (1982), 68, table 3.

On Egypt’s anti-natalist policy since the mid-1960s, see Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “State, Women, and Civil Society: An Evaluation of Egypt’s Population Policy,” in Family, Gender, and Population in the Middle East: Policies in Context, ed. Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1995), 60-64; Nabil Muhammad Abd al-Fattah, “Misr…wa-Muwajahat al-Mushkila al-Sukaniyya,” Al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, no. 1,064 (June 5, 1989), 41, in Arabic.

8 On Tunisia’s family planning policy during its early stage, see International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The Population Program of the Government of Tunisia: A Second Review, report no. 651-TUN (February 27, 1975), 6–8.

9 See Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer, “Islam, Women, and Politics: The Demography of Arab Countries,” Population and Development Review 18, no. 1 (March 1992): 40.

10 See World Bank data,

11 Although Jordan and Morocco did not officially adopt socialism, they did in practice.

12 On the changing GCC labor immigration policy during the 1980s, see Andrzej Kapiszewski, “Arab Labor Migration to the GCC Countries,” in International Organization for Migration and League of Arab States, Arab Migration in a Globalized World (May 2004), 119–129.

13 Egypt’s unemployment rate, for example, increased from less than 6 percent in 1982 to about 20 percent in the early 1990s. See M. Riad El-Ghonemy, Affluence and Poverty in the Middle East (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 182–183.

14 See for example, in the case of Egypt: Nabil Othman, “Nisbat al-Rafa li-Tanzim al-Usrah fi Misr La Tatajawazu 7%,” al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, no. 1,024 (February 24, 1988): 4–5, Arabic.

15 World Bank data,

16 United Nations, Demographic Yearbook, 2021, 363, table 9. Crude birth rate is the ratio between the number of live births and the total mid-year population during a given year multiplied by 1,000.

17 State of Kuwait, Central Statistical Bureau, Annual Bulletin for Vital Statistics: Births and Deaths, 2021 (2021), 5, table 3.

18 ECWA, Population Bulletin, nos. 10 and 11 (January–July 1976), 23; UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Population Situation in the ESCWA Region, 1990 (May 1992), 170, table 10.3.

19 The term “rental income,” drawn up by Adam Smith, refers to “income derived from the gift of nature,” such as oil and gas export revenues. The term “rentier state” refers to a situation in which the government controls these revenues.

20 On the GCC’s pro-natalist policies during the 1970s and the 1980s, see Baquer Salman Al-Najjar, “Population Policies in the Countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council: Politics and Society,” Immigrants & Minorities 12, no. 2 (1993): 211–213.

21 On Oman’s birth spacing program, see Alasdair Drysdale, “Population Dynamics and Birth Spacing in Oman,” IJMES 42, no. 1 (2010): 123–144; Rahma Mohamed al-Kindi and Hana Harib al-Sumri, “Prevalence and Sociodemographic Determinants of Contraceptive Use Among Women in Oman,” Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal 25, no. 7 (July 2019): 495–496.

22 The academic literature on the connection between female educational level and fertility rate is immense. See Alaka Malwade Basu, “Why does Education Lead to Lower Fertility? A Critical Review of Some of the Possibilities,” World Development 30, issue 10 (2002): 1979–1990. During the 1990s, unemployment among the nationals in each of the GCC countries was in double digits. On the unemployment problem among young Saudi nationals during the 1990s, see Saudi-American Bank, “Saudi Arabia’s Employment Profile,” October 8, 2000, 3; Rodney Wilson et al., Economic Development in Saudi Arabia (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzen, 2004), 98. During the 1990s, oil prices were very low in comparison to previous periods. In constant 2022 prices, the price of oil per barrel in 1992 was US$ 40.90 and declined to as low as $21.80 in 1998.

23 Egypt Ministry of Health and Population, Egypt: Demographic and Health Survey-2014 [EDHS-2014] (May 2015), 43, table 4.4.

24 Jordan Department of Statistics, Jordan Population and Family Health Survey-2017-18 [JPFHS-2017-18] (March 2019), 76, figure 5.2.

25 EUROSTAT, Fertility Statistics, table 1: Total Fertility Rate, 1960-2020

26 World Bank data,

27 Egypt, Statistical Yearbook, 2021, table 3–1.

28 The age-specific fertility rate is the annual number of births to women in a specified age group per 1,000 women in that age group.

29 World Bank data, For example, due to the oil price increase that led to an equivalent increase in grain prices on the one hand, and the economic policy of the Mubarak’s regime to narrow governmental subsidies on the other, Egypt’s food price inflation amounted to 19 percent in 2010. See Ramy Zuraky, “Use Your Loaf: Why Food Prices Were Crucial in the Arab Spring,” The Guardian, July 17, 2011.

30 Souhail Karam, “Morocco Boosts 2011 Subsidies Amid Regional Unrest,” Reuters, February 15, 2011.

31 IMF, Morocco: 2013 Article IV Consultation, Country Report no. 14/65 (March 2014), 17.

32 Ahmed Farouk Ghoneim, “Egypt and Subsidies: A Country Living Beyond Its Means,” Middle East Institute, May 5, 2014; Middle East Economic Digest, “2014 Economic Review,” 40.

33 Middle East Economic Survey, February 8, 2013.

34 Central Bank of Tunisia, Annual Report-2013 (2014), 23.

35 IMF, Tunisia: Staff Report for the 2012 Article IV Consultation, IMF Country Report no. 12/255, 6.

36 Sahar Taghdisi-Rad, Macroeconomic Policies and Employment in Jordan: Tackling the Paradox of Job Poor Growth, ILO Employment Working Paper no. 118 (Geneva: ILO, 2012), 6.

37 Despite the relatively high growth rate during the second half of the 2000s in all of the non-oil Arab countries, the unemployment rate, first and foremost among the first-time job seekers, remained in double-digit figures. In Tunisia, for example, in 2010, the unemployment rate of university graduates was above 20 percent. See Mongi Boughzala, “Youth Employment and Economic Transformation in Tunisia,” Global Economy and Development, Brookings Institute, Working Paper no. 57 (January 2013), 5–6.

38 IMF, Tunisia: Staff Report for the 2012 Article IV Consultation, IMF Country Report no. 12/255, 6; Central Bank of Tunisia, 53rd Annual Report-2011 (2012), 20.

39 The strengthening of the Islamists was manifested through the clear victory of the Islamist parties in the Egyptian 2011–2012 elections and that of Ennahda in the October 2011 Tunisian parliamentary election.

40 Emma Radovich, Atef el-Shitany, Hania Sholkamy and Lenka Benova, “Rising Up: Fertility Trends in Egypt Before and After the Revolution,” PLoS One 13, no. 1 (January 2018): 2.

41 EDHS-2014, 40, table 4.1; EDHS-2008, table 4.1.

42 Jordan Department of Statistics, Population and Family Health Survey-2007 [JPFHS-2007] (August 2008), 37, table 4.3; Jordan Department of Statistics, Population and Family Health Survey-2012 [JPFHS-2012] (October 2013), 49, table 5.2.

43 I did not use the 2020 data, as its fertility rate in the fourth quarter was affected by the pandemic

44 World Bank data,

45 Gad G. Gilbar, “Nasser’s Soft Revolution,” in his Population Dilemmas in the Middle East (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1997), 84–85.

46 Egypt’s crude birth rate declined from 40.9 in 1966 to 35.8 in 1974 and increased again to 40.2 in 1979. Egypt, Statistical Yearbook1952-1988, 26, table 1-12.

47 World Bank data,

48 IMF, Morocco: 2013 Article IV Consultation, Staff Report, Country Report no. 14/65 (March 2014), 1; Middle East Economic Digest, “2014 Economic Review,” 52.

49 Ghoneim, “Egypt and Subsidies.”

50 IMF, Arab Republic of Egypt, Selected Issues (December 11, 2017), 14.

51 Oil price declined from about $100 per barrel (WTI) in mid-2014 to about $50 at the end of the year and further declined to less than $30 in early February 2016 (current prices).

52 World Bank data,

53 Ibid.

54 “Increasing Population Is One of Egypt’s Main Problems: El-Sisi,” Ahram Online, May 1, 2014; Aya Samir, “Overpopulation, Terrorism are Egypt’s Real Threat: Sisi,” Egypt Today, July 24, 2017.

55 UNFPA, the [Egyptian] National Population Council, and the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion and Research, Population Situation Analysis-Egypt 2016 (December 2016), 49.

56 “Egypt Announces Plans for Curbing Overpopulation,” Al-Jazeera, June 9, 2015.

57 Lena Masri, “‘Two is Enough:’ Egypt Tells Poor Families as Population Booms,” Reuters, February 21, 2019; USAID, “Strengthening Egypt’s Family Planning Program,” February 23, 2021, 3–4.

58 Jordan HPC, National Reproductive Health/Family Planning Strategy, 2013-2017 (2013), 1; USAID, “Population and Family Health in Jordan,”; USAID, “A New Roadmap to Guide Family Planning in Jordan,” August 7, 2013; USAID, Jordan Family Planning Assessment: Final Report, April 2016, 8.

59 Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Country Profile of Tunisia (2011), 40.

60 Paola Scommegna, “In Morocco, More Modern Contraceptive Use Plays Key Role in Decreasing Maternal Deaths,” Population Reference Bureau, June 26, 2012; Kingdom of Morocco, Ministry of Health and UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities), Sharing Best Practices: Morocco (December 2020), 3, figure 1; Morocco Ministry of Health, National Survey on Population and Health-1992 (1993), 5, figure 2; Morocco Ministry of Health, al-Mash al-Watani Hawla al-Sukan wa-Sihat al-Usra–2018 (March 2020), 66, table 7.2, in Arabic.

61 Middle East Economic Digest, April 6-12, 2012, 25; Jeremy M. Sharp, Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, February 26, 2013), 4.

62 IMF, Tunisia: Staff Report for the 2012 Article IV Consultation, IMF Country Report no. 12/255, 6, 11; IMF, Tunisia, IMF Country Report no. 13/161 (June 2013), 7.

63 See Bassma Momani, “The IMF and the Arab World: Beyond the Washington Consensus,” Arab Center, Washington DC, January 4, 2023.

64 The most famous among these labor force nationalization plans is the Saudi nitaqat (“zones”) that introduced in 2011 following the onset of the Arab Spring events.

65 Saudi Central Bank, Annual Report-2021 (2021), 39, table 2.5.

66 In 2020, 84 percent of the Qatari national workforce was employed by the public sector, while the share of the nationals among the total employees in the construction industry was less than 1 percent, 1.2 percent in the transportation sector and 1.3 percent in trade and tourism sectors. State of Qatar, Planning and Statistics Authority, Labor Force Sample Survey-2020 (September 2021), 12.

67 In recent years, the unemployment rate among the GCC youth (under 25), especially women, has been in double digits. See Majlis al-Ta‛awun li-Duwal al-Khalij al-‛Arabiyya, al-Markaz al-Ihsa’i (GCC-STAT), Ihsa’at al-‛Amal fi Majlis al-Ta‛awun li-Duwal al-Khalij al-‛Arabiyya, al-Rub‛ al-Awwal, 2022 (2022), 13, figure 12, in Arabic.

68 Due to the increase of oil shale production, the overall US oil production increased from 7.89 million barrels per day in 2011 to 17.1 million in 2019. BP Statistical Review of World Energy-2022, 71st edition (2022), 15.

69 “Full Text of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030,” Saudi Gazette, April 26, 2016.

70 Saudi Central Bank, Annual Report-2015, 39, table 2.10; Saudi Central Bank, Annual Report-2021, 39, table 2.5.

71 Saudi Arabia General Authority of Statistics,

72 Françoise De Bel-Air, Jihan Safar, and Blandine Destremau, “Marriage and Family in the Gulf Today: Storms Over a Patriarchal Institution?” Arabian Humanities (2018),; Mouawiya al-Awad and Carole Chartouni, “Explaining the Decline in Fertility among Citizens of the GCC Countries: The Case of the UAE,” Education, Business and Society: Contemporary Middle Eastern Issues 7, no. 2/3 (2014): 82.

73 Saudi Demographic Survey-2016, table 26,

74 Saudi Arabia General Authority of Statistics Media Center, “GASTAT Releases Results of Household Health Survey, 2018,”

75 JPFHS-2017-18, 82, table 5.2.

76 EFHS-2021, 10.

77 Egypt, Statistical Yearbook2021, table 3–1.

78 SCB, Annual Report-2021, 38.

79 “Demographic gift” (or “demographic dividend”) refers to an age structure in which the vast majority of the population, 70 percent at least, is in the working age group (15–64). This favored age structure resulted by rapid fertility decline, which leads in the short run to shrinking the under-15 age group, while the 65 and above age group is still small.

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Winckler, O. The Fertility Revolution of the Arab Countries Following the Arab Spring. Middle East Policy XXX. no. 4 (2023).

©2023, The Author. Middle East Policy published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Middle East Policy Council.

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