Population – a challenging future
Like the rest of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia has a young and rapidly increasing population.
In 1970 its population was estimated to be
6.2 million people. By 1992 it had increased threefold to be in the region of 17 million, 2003 estimates were around 24 million, and projections
are for more than 30 million by the year 2010.
Despite these rapid increases, thanks to its huge area, the Kingdom still boasts a low population
density of twelve people per square km compared with 244 per km in the UK.
In 1950, the capital city of Riyadh was a sleepy, mud-bricked
oasis town, home to 60,000 people. Today, utility companies cannot keep pace with the new housing developments as the city sprawls across
the desert. With a population estimated to be around 4.5 million, it is the Kingdom’s
largest urban centre. If London had undergone a similar pattern of growth over the last 60 years it would be home to a mind-boggling 57 million
people, rather than the 7.2 million it is today.
These statistics make the Kingdom one of the most
rapidly-growing countries in the world today. There are a number of factors behind this. Fertility rates amongst Saudi women are very high – the
average woman bears more than six children in her lifetime. Rapidly improving healthcare has seen life expectancy increase, with
a corresponding decrease in infant mortality. These factors combine to give an annual growth rate of 3.5% (compared
to the UK’s 0.3%), and the population characteristics bear the hallmarks of a developing nation, with
a large proportion under 20 years old, and relatively few people of old age. Indeed, the average age in the
Kingdom is just 19 years old.
As these large numbers of young people seek to enter the workplace, they provide the government with
a significant challenge – create enough jobs to avoid high levels of unemployment. Each year it is estimated that nearly 300,000 young people enter the workforce in an environment
that provides less than 200,000 jobs.
This challenge has been approached in two ways, firstly through diversification and expansion of the
economy creating more jobs, and secondly, through the process of ‘Saudisation’ which involves the replacement of large numbers
of foreign workers in the country with Saudi people.
During the oil boom years of the 1960s and 1970s countries throughout the gulf region
sought large numbers of expatriate workers to provide the skills and manpower to enable them to embark on huge oil funded construction and
development projects. Hospitals, housing, universities, schools, airports and roads appeared at an extraordinary rate, with large numbers
of the construction workers originating from less-developed nations in Asia, and most of the white collar engineers and managers bringing
their skills from the western nations.
Such was the magnitude of this influx that today there are about six million expatriate workers
in the Kingdom, mostly male, making up a substantial proportion of the workforce. This situation is slowly changing as
Saudis acquire the vocational and technical skills to manage their own development.
See also the Population Issues Worksheets in Unit 5
To find out more about
population issues in the Kingdom:
From 'The Washington
Photographs courtesy of Peter Sanders.