Fertility and Marriage in the Middle East: Paradoxical Trends

The demographic transition in most Arab countries seemed irreversible. The levels of childbearing were steadily declining. And yet suddenly they have begun to rise, a rare occurrence in any society. The reasons are many, complex and overturn common beliefs.

UNDP, 2013.

Arab demography has given rise to many prejudiced fantasies. In the mid-1980s, the decline of fertility in nearly all the countries of the region took observers by surprise. Improvements in the education of men and women since the 1960s, the gradual disappearance of early marriage and the spread of modern methods of contraception all went to explain this trend, even though the rates and forms of change differed from one country to another. Today, however, the dynamics seem reversed. While the rapid decline of Arab fertility seemed an established fact was even worked into international demographic forecasting1, there is disagreement among specialists as to whether or not this is actually a new development: since the mid-2000s, several countries have seen their fertility rate stabilised (Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, while in others it actually increased (Egypt and Algeria). Only Palestine, Lebanon, and the Gulf States remain unaffected by this reversal of demographic curves. In 2016 Saudi Arabia, for example, had a total fertility rate (TFR)2 of 2.4 babies per Saudi woman, well below the 3.5 babies per woman to be observed today in Egypt or Jordan.

A reversal of fertility trends such as this is historically rare. In the Arab countries, the reasons for this change have been identified: a return, more or less pronounced, to the practice of early marriage and a stabilisation of the levels of contraception during the first decade of the new century. What are the characteristics and particular traits of these new dynamics and what structural explanation can be offered? We will concentrate on Egypt and Jordan, two countries studied by the Demographic and Health Surveys of the USAID which has provided the data used here.

From an Oil-Revenue Economy to Policies of Structural Adjustment (1970-1990)

Egypt is the demographic giant of the Arab world, with a population of 93 million as of May 2017. Each year 2,700,000 babies are born.(fig. 1). And yet as early as 1937, a first fatwa in favour of birth control was issued by the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar and in 1961 the birth rate was explicitly declared a hindrance to achieving a better living standard. Thus birth control was granted an official status in Egypt. In 1980, 28% of married Egyptian women were using contraception. The figure rose to 56% by 2000 and the total fertility rate fell from 5.3 children per woman in 1980 to 3 in 2008.

However, the fertility trend in Egypt has been quite irregular: under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, it declined, probably because of increased school attendance, but the birth rate rose again under Anouar Al-Sadate. The opening up of the national economy and the new rentier-type profits (not generated by productive activities) such as US development aid or the resumption of income from the Suez Canal provided the State with greater resources. Redistributed to the population in the form of subsidies, these partly made up for the “costs of procreation” borne by families. At the same time, massive emigration of Egyptian workers to the Gulf countries following the 1970s oil shock increased the earnings of expatriate households.

This period of economic improvement probably explains the rise in a birthrate which was to decline again in the 1980s (fig. 1) under Hosni Mubarak’s government, when oil prices began to fall and the Gulf states had less need for Egyptian labour. Fertility continued to decline throughout the 1990s, as a result of the neoliberal policies of structural adjustment which involved the shrinkage of both the civil service employment sector and the subsidies for education, health and basic necessities.

Figures 1 and 2. Quantitative trends in births, marriages and total fertility rates (TFR) in Egypt and Jordan.

The very high rates of fertility observed in Jordan until the beginning of the 1980s (fig. 2 : an average of 7.6 children per woman in 1979) seems equally paradoxical considering that ever since the sixties steady progress had been made in providing for the education of women. However, as in Egypt, this high fertility rate can be explained by the overall rise in family incomes, due to nationals emigrating to oil-producing countries and by the “rentier” nature of the country’s economy, fuelled by various standing contributions and other forms of aid from the Gulf countries. This revenue was redistributed to the people in the form of subsidies and social investments: education and health care were practically free. Moreover, one result of this prosperity was that it was no longer deemed necessary for women to work (by the 1970s, only 7% of Jordanian women worked outside the home), which hindered efforts to diminish the frequency of early marriage. Thus these revenues put a stop to the process generally observed elsewhere by which education causes a decline in fertility.3 And then too, Jordan had opened its gates to Asian domestics. By relieving the parents of domestic tasks and child care, this further encouraged the proliferation of offspring.

Over the next two decades, however, fertility declined rapidly, from more than 7 births per woman in 1979 to 3.7 by the end of the ’90s. This was due to the gradual economic recession which followed that of the Gulf countries, then the process of structural adjustment begun in 1988. The civil service was no longer hiring and it became difficult to find work, especially for women with degrees. At the same time, the Gulf markets were closed to Jordanians after the first Gulf War of 1990-19914, which in turn caused Arab aid to shrink along with the funds sent home by expatriates. Thus it appears certain that the decline of fertility in Jordan was also brought about by diminishing household incomes.

Fertility Upturn in the 2000s

How then to explain the rise in the Egyptian fertility rate, now an established fact, and the stabilisation of Jordanian fertility for more than a decade? High fertility rates are generally associated with low incomes and poor education, and when they climb again it is assumed that access to contraception has broken down. However, developments in Egypt and Jordan belie these scenarios: indeed, the increase in fertility is observed mostly among the better educated classes. In Egypt, from around 2010, women with secondary school and university degrees gave birth to 3.5 children each, as against fewer than 3 prior to that. In Jordan, at the turn of the century, women with a secondary school diploma displayed a higher fertility (4 children per woman) than less educated women (3.6 children per woman).

These figures differ sharply from those of the previous periods (1980s and 1990s), when fertility curves evolved in an inverse relationship to education levels. Similarly, while the fertility rate of the poorest classes has diminished (Jordan) or remained unchanged (Egypt), that of more affluent women rose over both periods, especially in the “intermediate” and “high” income quintiles (20% segments). Better educated and with more means at their disposal, these women theoretically have better control over their fertility. And indeed, the use of contraceptives remains unchanged in both countries, where 6 women in 10 have continued to practise contraception. But above all, it is the desired fertility rate that has gone up between the last two periods.5 In Jordan, the best educated women wanted on the average to have one child more (2.9 children) than uneducated women (1.9). It would seem then that this fertility rise is to a large extent the consequence of individual choices.

Chart 1. Some characteristics and determinants of Egyptian and Jordanian fertility rates from DHS surveys for the years considered

Sources : AbdeI-Aziz Sayed, Hussein et al. Egypt Demographic and Health Survey 1988, Cairo : Egypt National Population Council / Columbia : Institute for Resource Development and Macro Systems, October 1989 ; El-Zanaty, Fatma H. and Anne Way. Egypt Demographic and Health Survey 2005, Cairo : Ministry of Health and Population, National Population Council, El-Zanaty and Associates ; Calverton : ORC Macro, February 2006 ; Ministry of Health and Population/Egypt, El-Zanaty and Associates/Egypt, and ICF International. Egypt Demographic and Health Survey 2014, Cairo, Egypt : Ministry of Health and Population and ICF International, 2015. ; Zou’bi, Abdel Aziz, Abdallah, Sri Poedjastoeti, and Mohamed Ayad. Jordan Population and Family Health Survey 1990, Columbia, Maryland, USA : Department of Statistics/Jordan, Ministry of Health/Jordan, and IRD/Macro International, 1992 ; Department of Statistics/Jordan and ORC Macro. Jordan Population and Family Health Survey 2002, Calverton, Maryland, USA : Department of Statistics/Jordan and ORC Macro, 2003 ; Department of Statistics of Jordan and ICF Macro. Jordan Population and Family Health Survey 2009, Calverton, Maryland, USA : Department of Statistics and ICF Macro, 2010 ; Department of Statistics [Jordan] and ICF International. Jordan Population and Family Health Survey 2012, Calverton, Maryland, USA : Department of Statistics and ICF International, 2013.

Considering the high levels of education of young women in both countries (according to UNESCO, 11 and 13% of Egyptian and Jordanian women aged 25 and over had university degrees by the end of the 2000s and half the working women of Jordan had at least a bachelor degree in 2012), it is surprising that statistics indicate a (slight) increase in the number of early marriages during the decade: in 2012-2014, 15% of Egyptian women under 20 were married, divorced or widowed, as against 12.5 % ten years earlier.

Contraception is seldom used before the birth of a first child in either of the two countries under study. Thus, those early marriages have increased the fertility rates for those very young age groups. In Egypt, fertility rose from 47 to 56% between 2003 and 2012-2014). And there again, these early marriages do not take place in the poorest classes: the rise in early fecundity concerns the third (“medium”) and fourth income quintiles, but not the first two. What with the rising numbers of early marriages and the higher fertility rates among educated and affluent young women, is procreation becoming a privilege of the wealthy? How can we explain these surprising dynamics?

Return to a rentier economy?

We have seen that over the previous decades fertility trends have followed the fluctuations of rentier revenues (State subsidies for social infrastructure, migrant workers’ remittances). Indeed, the 2000s saw a resumption of massive emigration to the Gulf countries. The rise of oil prices after 2003 created new requirements for skilled and unskilled workers. By 2015, an estimated 700,000 Jordanians and 2.4 million Egyptians were residents of the Gulf region, mostly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

As a consequence the remittances of Egyptian expatriates soared from 2.8 billion dollars in 2000 to nearly 20 billion in 2014, according to the estimations of the World Bank. Less spectacularly, Jordanian expatriate remittances merely doubled, from 1.8 to 3.6 billion dollars between those two dates, representing 12% of the country’s GNP in 2014. This influx of private capital, mostly into Egypt, may have provided economic impetus for a rate of fertility which, as we have seen, had previously been desired but thwarted by economic constraints. Jordanian workers in the Gulf were, moreover, skilled or highly skilled, as were many of the Egyptians, which begins to explain why the fertility upturn was largely a middle-class phenomenon. Moreover, emigration generates remittances which are not only monetary but also social-cultural. Emigrants to the Gulf region may well have brought back to their country of origin behaviour models influenced by the social conservatism and subordination of women, still widely prevalent in Saudi Arabia, for example.

Growth of Inequalities

However, this type of explanation can be associated with another underlying trend which characterises Middle-Eastern societies as a whole: the aggravation of inequalities caused by the economic liberalisation begun in the 1990s but which has become more pronounced since 2000 in both countries. Egypt, for example, had a record rate of growth (7% between 2005 and 2008) before the financial crisis and the political instability which followed the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011. While the poor and the middle classes saw their living conditions deteriorate when the government abandoned its public service missions and social safety nets (health care, education and subsidies of basic necessities), and experienced higher levels of unemployment, poverty, and corruption, others profited by economic liberalisation, as witness the development of the industrial and building sectors and of a globalised consumer culture common to both countries.

The consumerization of the economy also affected the matrimonial market. Since the nineties, the cost of the dowry which the groom’s family must pay to the bride’s to seal the union, the cost of equipping the future home, etc. have risen considerably. Which also helps to explain why fertility behaviour varies accordion to educational and income brackets: the poorest strata encounter economic difficulties in marrying, and higher costs of education, health care and housing place de facto limits on their fertility: a “poverty-activated Malthusianism,” has seemed to develop throughout the region, whereas the middle and upper classes are better equipped to cope with the “costs of procreation”. All the more so as a very different dynamics has gained momentum with globalisation and the adjustment of national economies to international standards of competitiveness: rising unemployment among young people with diplomas and low female employment rates. The public sectors are no longer hiring, whereas they used to be the natural employer for diploma holders; in a second phase, the incorporation of the regional economies into globalisation has brought about the development of low value-added activities, especially industrial ones, aimed at the export market. The jobs created are unskilled and badly paid and have little to attract women with degrees. Women’s participation in the labour mark is low in both countries, as low as 15% in Jordan today, for example. Some therefore find in marriage and the family a personal development which the economy denies them.

Deeply Divided Societies

No one knows if this rise or this stagnation of the fertility rate will persist in the years to come. Emigration from Arab countries to the Gulf countries, in particular, could be slowed even if oil prices rise. New policies of national job preference tend to limit the use of foreign labour, and the fear of political sedition gaining the Gulf countries prompts their governments to prefer Asian workers to Arabs. However, more generally, statistical data and surveys are not enough to grasp the complexity of these societies and the heterogeneity of behaviour patterns, not only from one nation to another but within a given country. Comparing levels of education, income and emigration is enlightening, but the data must be examined in greater detail. It is possible to evaluate the impact of the State’s withdrawal of social services, but the redistributive functions of the State have been taken over by other players and charities, often outgrowths of Islamist organisations. What has been the socio-political impact of these organisations on the fertility behaviour within, for example, the least affluent sectors of the middle classes who use their services? The surveys do not enable us to answer such questions.

Another phenomenon, the emergence of female celibacy, is also widely debated in the societies of the region since the turn of the century, in the same way, paradoxically enough, as the struggle against Egyptian demographic growth. One observes the coexistence of young single women working outside the home whose consumption makes them part of globalisation, and other, equally educated women, who marry before they are twenty, have family responsibilities and may favor reforms inspired by religious conservatism. As successive political upheavals of the Arab revolt have shown, the societies of the region are not evolving at the same pace and are increasingly divided. The upturn in Arab fecundity is only one aspect of in-depth change.

1UN demographic projections, updated as recently as 2015, indicate a fertility rate of fewer than three children per woman between 2005 and 2010, for example.

2The total fertility rate (TFR) of a population is the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime if she were to experience the exact current age-specific fertility rates (ASFRs) through her lifetime.

3See Philippe Fargues’ work on this question (Générations arabes, Paris : Fayard, 2000 ; pp. 102-107).

4King Hussein having failed to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, some 350,000 Jordanian workers and their families were deported from the Saudi Kingdom.

5Even though they remain lower than the total fertility rates observed (2.8 vs 3.5 in Egypt, 3 vs 3.8 in Jordan).