Voices from the Arab press: Iran’s new challenges: birth decline, aging society

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 AN ELDERLY man gets some fresh air in Tehran. (photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
AN ELDERLY man gets some fresh air in Tehran.
(photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

Iran’s new challenges: birth rate decline and an aging society

Al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia, May 20

For more stories from The Media Line go to themedialine.org

Concerns about a dwindling population have cast a shadow over Iran. During the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran launched a US-backed program for population control that ultimately had little impact on the reproductive behavior of citizens. During the 1980s, Iranian women had an average of six children, in response to calls by Iranian leader Ruhollah Khomeini to reject family planning policies, since they are incompatible with Islam.

The Iranian government also promoted the perception that a high birth rate is needed in order to promote a Shiite-dominated Middle East. After the first Gulf War, which lasted about eight years, and in the face of a battered economy, Iran changed course under presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, and adopted family planning programs, making the rate of two children per family the preference. And in 1988, the Supreme Court paved the way for modern family planning programs, when it declared the practice fully compatible with Islam.

The government subsequently promoted the distribution of modern contraceptives and provided advice, education and awareness campaigns throughout Iran. In 2005, during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, having a large number of children was again declared a blessing and family planning was dismissed as a Western strategy to weaken Iran. But by 2010, the average number of births per woman had fallen from 5.1 to 1.7, a number that has remained steady until today.

 IRAN’S SUPREME LEADER Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran earlier this month.  (credit: OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) IRAN’S SUPREME LEADER Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran earlier this month. (credit: OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, criticized the decline in the birth rate and announced that growing the size of the Iranian family is a strategic goal. Since then, Iran has implemented a number of family-friendly measures, including extending maternity leave to nine months, allowing pregnant women to take sick leave more easily, and facilitating access to loans and jobs for families with children.

Recently, Khamenei, in a letter to the National Population Center, warned against the dangers of a low birth rate. He called on all government ministries to enact plans to encourage population growth. Khamenei’s letter sheds light on the problem of a declining birth rate coupled with an increase in Iran’s elderly population. According to the Iranian Statistical Center, the fertility rate is currently 1.71 children per woman per year.

There is a fear that this decline in birth rates will cause various problems for the country, in particular the shrinking of the labor force that must take care of the larger number of elderly citizens. The result could lead to a decrease in per capita income, with severe economic impact on the overall population. Hence, the Iranian parliament enacted legislation to help families grow in size, such as infertility treatment and services for working women. The actions were accompanied by widespread propaganda efforts in the media and state institutions, including universities.

However, it has not been enough to convince the young people to change their practices. It can be said that the challenges facing the increase in birth rates are great, as young people cannot afford the expenses associated with large families, in light of the deteriorating economic conditions in Iran. With Iranians suffering from a mass exodus to already overcrowded cities, continued US economic sanctions and a 30-year drought, it is inconceivable that they would want to bring more children into the world at the present time. – Hoda Raouf

The next global food crisis is coming

Al-Ittihad, UAE, May 19

The UN World Food Program has issued emergency warnings that 14 countries, mainly located in Africa and the Middle East, will face famine conditions if immediate measures aren’t taken to provide them with food supplies in the coming months. Indeed, the world is facing a food crisis that will affect all countries by limiting access to food, or by raising the cost of food to unprecedentedly high levels. 

The reasons for this are many. Years of drought, as a result of climate change, have destroyed crops in many countries. Similarly, the global COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain problems, have caused delays and increased shipping costs. More recently, the shortage in foodstuff has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, which has halted basic food exports from Black Sea ports. If immediate action is not taken by the international community to deal with this crisis, millions of people will suffer from hunger in the coming months.

Therefore, long-term plans are needed to mitigate the effects of climate change and adopt more effective ways to increase yields and maintain fresh water supplies. These schemes should become a priority, but the most important immediate remedy is to find ways to allow Russia and Ukraine to export their food products. These two countries produce many of the main agricultural crops exported to the rest of the world. Russia accounts for 16% of the world’s wheat supply and 29% of sunflower oil, and is the largest exporter of fertilizers. Meanwhile, Ukraine provides 48% of all sunflower oil, 10% of all wheat, and 14% of all corn sold in the world.

All these essential supplies are no longer reaching their end markets. Ukraine now has warehouses filled with agricultural products that cannot be shipped. Thus, if an agreement isn’t reached allowing Black Sea ports to be used for shipping food exports, the products will remain in their warehouses, where they will eventually spoil and become unfit for consumption. It is therefore in the interest of the whole world to bring an end to this crisis.

So far, many countries in the southern hemisphere have argued that the war in Ukraine is primarily a Western crisis and does not directly affect their national security interests. However, as the statistics and geography of the food crisis show, the most vulnerable countries are those in the south.

There is no doubt that the conditions of famine are a recipe for political turmoil and mass migration, which pose many security challenges that will require immediate attention. Because some of the most influential countries of the south have maintained good relations with Russia, they have the capacity to reach a compromise that includes agreement on rules and protocols for the safe passage of food exports from the Black Sea.

The best implementation of this initiative will undoubtedly require careful preparation, but the truth is that if these efforts are not made in the coming weeks, the likelihood of famine will become very real. There is no doubt that the World Food Program and other relief organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, in close cooperation with important countries from the south, can talk to Russia and Ukraine on this matter. In fact, this may give Moscow in particular the opportunity to benefit from a humanitarian initiative that, if applied properly, will not change the rules of the conflict. – Jeffrey Kemp

Evading criminal repercussions with bribes

Al-Ahram, Egypt, May 21

Recently, we’ve been hearing of several offenses and crimes committed by members of some of Egypt’s richest families. Notably, the victims of these actions often come from the weakest and poorest parts of society. Then, after the crime garners public attention and is brought to the authorities, the perpetrators evade punishment by buying their way out of the situation.

In a recent incident that took place in Cairo, a notable businessman repeatedly hit a security guard in the face. The guard chose not to press charges out of fear of losing his job. Despite the fact that authorities decided to launch an investigation into the attack, the guard decided to drop the case. It is believed that the attacker paid the victim a nice sum of money in return for his silence.

In another incident, a 14-year-old child, the son of a former parliamentarian, along with two other people, assaulted a cleaning worker. The men severely beat the worker, who eventually succumbed to his wounds and died. But they somehow bribed the victim’s family and were thus never brought to justice. It’s important to know that in 2006, during the Mubarak era, several amendments were made to Egyptian law, allowing crimes to be settled outside of court through reconciliation. This includes manslaughter cases in which the victim’s family accepts an apology from the perpetrator and drops their charges. 

For example, a recent car crash in Sheikh Zayed City left four people dead, including three children, after the son of a wealthy man crashed his car into a crowd. A police investigation showed that the man was driving well beyond the speed limit under the influence of drugs and alcohol. However, the victims’ families couldn’t resist the temptation of cash compensation – which totaled over four million pounds each (NIS 16.7 m.) – so they opted for reconciliation and dropped their charges. The drunk driver evaded the possibility of up to seven years in prison. This is what our legal system currently allows rich offenders to do.

Wouldn’t it be better to amend our laws in ways that actually benefit the ordinary citizen such as addressing legal loopholes, defending basic rights, or ensuring equality for all? – Ahmed Abd Al-Tawab

American misunderstanding of the new Gulf

Asharq Al-Awsat, London, May 20

It is becoming increasingly clear with each passing day that the influential role of Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is simply misunderstood and underappreciated within the US. For example, following the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Washington tried to force Gulf states to weaponize their oil exports in order to pressure the Russian economy. However, Saudi Arabia refused to politicize its oil exports and insisted on letting market forces shape the global supply and demand of oil.

What is surprising is that throughout the years, Western commentators, researchers and politicians have repeatedly blamed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for politicizing the issue of energy and oil. They frequently cited the 1973 oil crisis as an example, yet today seem to have radically changed their minds and become supportive of this trend.

The Egyptian political researcher and writer Dr. Abdel Moneim Saeed, noting the American confusion in understanding Gulf politics at the present time, says that there are currents or schools within the American elite regarding dealing with Gulf politics. The first consists of those who worked in the Gulf and view this issue as a kind of misunderstanding that can be fixed through dialogue, the other consists of those who believe that everyone who doesn’t stand with Washington is inherently against it.

What Saeed points out is that a lot about our world order has changed in recent years: America isn’t as strong as it used to be, Gulf states have undergone extensive reforms and the global arena has become more competitive. The world today is radically different from the world that many Washington elites have been accustomed to.

So long as journalists, researchers and policymakers in America fail to accept this reality, they will fail to understand many of their allies, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In any case, Gulf states will continue to modernize themselves and reassess their priorities given their ever-changing region. The train has already left the station, and it will not stop. The question is whether American observers of this reality will finally come to terms with it. – Meshary Al-Dhaidy

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.