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THE NUMBER OF Arabs in the world has tripled since 1970, to about 350m. And although in recent years population growth has slowed in most Arab countries, as it has in most of the world, demographers think the total is still likely to reach 600m by 2050.
On maps the Arab world still looks largely empty, and some of the constituent countries certainly are. In Libya and Mauritania the population density is just three people per square kilometre. In Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, a patch of sand the size of Britain, it is below two. But the variety across the region is immense. Lebanon is more crowded than Belgium, for instance, and the Gaza Strip is far more closely packed than the city of Los Angeles. So are parts of Egypt, since 80m of its 85m people are crammed into the narrow Nile valley.

These statistics matter. They show the immensity of the development task that Arab countries face. Yemen, for instance, is not only one of the world’s poorest countries, with frightening rates of child malnutrition; its renewable water resources per person are less than a tenth of the global threshold for water scarcity. Egypt has experienced a surge in poverty and childhood stunting, a result of poor nutrition.
So far Arab countries have generally done a creditable job, at least in some fields. Life expectancy in the region has risen by 25 years since 1960, faster than in most parts of the world. Literacy in Saudi Arabia has shot up from 10% in 1960 to 87%, and 99% for youths of school-leaving age. Quantity, however, has not been matched by quality. Saudi Arabia spends a higher proportion of its GDP on schooling than most rich nations, yet in a recent set of standardised global maths tests, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), under half of Saudi 13-year-olds reached the lowest benchmark, compared with 99% in South Korea and 88% in England. Barely 1% of the Saudi children gained an “advanced” level, against 47% of South Korean and 8% of English ones.
This suggests that Saudi schools are not just of generally poor quality, but that they fail to encourage brighter students. The religion-heavy Saudi curriculum may be a distraction from maths. Still, the kingdom is not the only underachiever. In the TIMSS tests Arab countries made up nine of the bottom ten out of 63 participating countries. Qatar, with one of the world’s highest GDPs per person, scored lower than impoverished Albania in reading, science and maths in the OECD’s PISA study in 2009

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