Iran leads Middle East population growth decline

Turnaround attributed to better family planning, urbanization and empowerment of women.

Iranian women vote 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Iranian women vote 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Middle East's decades-long population boom is coming to an end, according to new United Nations data. In fact, eight of the 15 countries that witnessed the greatest decrease in fertility since 1980 are Middle Eastern, led by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Iran, the average number of children per woman decreased from 6.50 between 1975 and 1980, to a projected fewer than two from 2005 to 2010. The other countries that made the list in the region are Tunisia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco. While fertility levels continue to decline worldwide, the global population is still expected to reach 9.1 billion in 2050, increasing by about 33 million people annually at that time, according to the UN's "World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision." A number of factors are believed to be responsible for the decrease, including better access to family planning, urbanization, and empowerment of women. Education and access to family planning can go a long way toward reducing population growth, even in conservative Muslim states, a UN official told reporters at a population conference last week. "Even in cultures that are Muslim, advances of a very big quantity can be made if the government has enough commitment to provide the services and the social infrastructure that validates those changes," said Hania Zlotnik, director of the population division at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, according to The New York Times. A March report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued that the "empowerment of women" was the main factor for the slowing population growth rate in the Middle East and North Africa. "Middle Eastern women have made great progress at gaining more equal access to education," wrote Patrick Clawson, the institute's deputy director for research. However, Clawson said, "that has not yet translated into more access to employment outside the home." While the slowing birth rate means a relatively light burden for the economy in terms of caring for children and the elderly, the Middle East can only benefit from this if it can create enough jobs for the young who were born during the previous years, when there was rapid population growth, Clawson argued. "If jobs are not created in sufficient numbers to absorb those joining the labor market, the resulting rise in unemployment could have a considerable political impact," he said. "Iran has seen a wave of unemployed youth turning to antisocial behavior, especially drug addiction and prostitution. Political extremists from Algeria to Palestine and Iraq have been able to recruit readily among young people who face a bleak future." From 1950 to 2000, the Middle East experienced "explosive population growth," he wrote. The region's population grew from 92 million to 349 million, a 3.8-fold increase, or 2.7 percent a year.