Saudi Arabia Faces Population Pressures

(May 2003) The recent bombings in Saudi Arabia, which killed at least 34 people, have drawn new attention to the kingdom and new pressure on the government of Crown Prince Abdullah to crack down on militant religious forces and root out their influence in schools and other key sectors. At the same time, however, the powerful Gulf kingdom is grappling with many other problems, including a number of demographic challenges. High among these challenges are a large, young population; fertility rates of almost 6 children per woman; high population growth; and a large expatriate population.

Saudi Arabia has an extremely young population. Of the country’s 24 million people, 43 percent are under the age of 15. By contrast, 26 percent of Kuwait’s population is under 15 years old. UN estimates place the population growth rate for 1995-2000 at 3.5 percent, and according to the United Nations, rapid growth is placing increasing pressure on social sectors, including the country’s public school system.

Foreign workers have long played a key role in Saudi Arabia’s economy. The Millennium Development Goals Report for Saudi Arabia issued by the United Nations notes that non-Saudis accounted for roughly one quarter of the population in 1999. Indeed, among women who were employed that year, only 32 percent were nationals of the country. Non-Saudi labor is especially apparent in the areas of domestic service and childrearing, according to the report.

In general, employment opportunities for Saudi women are limited. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that the unemployment rate for women in 2001 was 9 percent, compared with close to 4 percent for men, and opportunities for women are concentrated in the education and health services sectors. Literacy rates for women are also much lower that those of men. Some 67 percent of women 15 years and over are literate, compared with 84 percent of men.

Yvette Collymore is senior editor at PRB.

Saudi Arabia Facts and Figures

Demographic Variable Data
Population Mid-2002 24,000,000
Population 2025 (projected) 40,900,000
Infant Mortality Rate (infant deaths per 1,000 live births) 19
Total Fertility Rate (average no. of children born to a woman during her lifetime) 5.7
Population Under Age 15 (%) 43
Population Over Age 65 (%) 3
Life Expectancy at Birth, Both Sexes (years) 72
Urban Population (%) 83
Population Ages 15-49 With HIV/AIDS at End of 2001 (%)
Contraceptive Use Among Married Women 15-49, All Methods (%) 32
Contraceptive Use Among Married Women 15-49, Modern Methods (%) 29
Births Attended by Skilled Personnel (%) 91
Maternal Deaths per 100,000 Live Births 23
Abortion Policy, 2000
Permitted on physical or mental health grounds, and in some countries, in one or more special cases such as rape, incest, or fetal impairment or abnormality. Spousal and/or parental consent required in some countries.
Literacy Rate (ages 15+), 2000, Female (%) 67
Literacy Rate (ages 15+), 2000, Male (%) 84
Secondary School Enrollment, 1985, Female (%) 31
Secondary School Enrollment, 1985, Male (%) 48
Secondary School Enrollment, 1993-1997, Female (%) 57
Secondary School Enrollment, 1993-1997, Male (%) 65
Labor Force Participation (ages 15-64), 1980, Female (%) 10
Labor Force Participation (ages 15-64), 2000, Female (%) 23
Labor Force Participation (ages 15-64), 2000, Male (%) 82
Average Age at First Marriage, All Women[15] 22
Illiterate Males Ages 15-19 (%) 4
Illiterate Females Ages 15-19 (%) 16
Population Using Improved Drinking Water Sources, 1999, Total (%) 95
Population Using Improved Drinking Water Sources, 1999, Rural (%) 64
Population Using Adequate Sanitation, 1999, Total (%) 100
Population Using Adequate Sanitation, 1999, Rural (%) 100

Sources: Carl Haub, 2002 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: PRB, 2002); Justine Sass and Lori Ashford, 2002 Women of Our World (Washington, DC: PRB, 2002); and Carl Haub and Britt Herstad, Family Planning Worldwide, 2002 Data Sheet (Washington, DC: PRB, 2002).