Project Summary

Despite pro-natalist policies, fertility of national populations in all GCC countries has declined in the last decades. The total fertility rate of Qataris dropped from 5.7 in 1990 to 3.9 in 2009; in Oman from 6.2 children per woman in 1993 to 3.7 in 2010; and in Saudi Arabia from 3.6 in 2004 to 3.17 in 2010. Given the small size of the national population compared to the number of foreign nationals residing in their territory and in the labour force, all GCC governments are concerned about the current fertility trends of their national population.

The first GCC forum on marriage (2002) called member states to increase their population by encouraging large families through cash bonuses and moral incentives. Similarly, the Qatar National Development Strategy (2011-2016) stated that “ensuring the continuity of cohesive families and large households is crucial to the national vision, since families are the core of Qatari society.” Another report stated that “Qatar’s growing demographic imbalance due to growing immigration and falling fertility rate among nationals may pose long term political and security challenges to the country,” leading to profound repercussions on the age structure, the family building, the cultural identities and to a decrease of the proportion of citizens within the total population.

Increasing national populations remains a goal shared by GCC states which can theoretically be attained in two ways: sustained levels of fertility among nationals and naturalisation of significant numbers of foreign nationals. This study concentrates exclusively on the former and offers a detailed account of the levels, trends and determinants of fertility among national women in GCC states in order to provide a better understanding of the social, economic and political processes at play in the natural population growth of nationals (as opposed to growth by immigration and naturalisation).

Presently Gulf women are having fewer children than a generation ago. This is generally attributed to rapid social change, e.g., increasing levels of female education (making women aspire to roles other than those of wife and mother) and rising economic participation of women (bringing them to the public space). Changing marriage patterns in GCC countries are also reported to have played a significant role in fertility decline and changing family patterns. Women in GCC countries are not only delaying marriage, but many of them remain permanently single, by choice or by necessity. Additionally, because of steadily increasing divorce rates, especially at a young age, many women remain unexposed to childbearing during their reproductive years.

However, fertility rates among Gulf nationals are still high compared with those of any other population at the same level of economic development (income per capita); and are even more striking if one compares the fertility of nationals with that of the foreigners residing in GCC countries. This can be attributed to a combination of factors that make a high level of fertility desirable (traditional values) and affordable (subsidised economy of the family). The relationship between high income and high fertility in some GCC countries is partly explained by: the pro-natalist features of culture; financial costs of children that are alleviated by the welfare state’s support to families; and opportunity costs for the woman that are alleviated by the presence of migrant domestic workers in the household.

Policies aimed at reducing costs of building and maintaining a family are offset by policies promoting education of girls and employment of women and changing marriage patterns. Moreover, large-scale immigration of female foreign nationals has possibly conflicting impacts: it frees national women from housekeeping duties (which could favour employment outside the household) but also makes it unnecessary for them to leave the household to join the labour market (as typically female occupations, e.g., schoolteacher or care worker, can be filled by foreign women).

Change in fertility rates is thus a reflection of important economic and socio-demographic changes taking place in a particular society. It depends on a set of determinants – such as the age of women, age at marriage, level of education, type of work, etc. – that need to be incorporated to better understand the evolution of fertility levels and behaviours in the Qatari and other Gulf societies. The study aims at disentangling the above factors and drawing policy conclusions. It will be based on two sorts of data. First, administrative data -population censuses, birth and marriage records- will make it possible to compute indicators of current levels, recent trends, and major differentials of fertility among national women.

The proposed study will assess the factors which are causing the fertility drop so that these can be targeted if governments wish to do so. While necessary information –composition of households at the time of a population census, continuous record of live births by nationality and age of the mother, distribution of the population by nationality, marital status, age and sex– are collected systematically in all GCC countries, the corresponding statistics are not always routinely published. Access to them can be obtained in most if not all GCC countries. Second, a survey addressing what statistics do not reveal (attitudes, behaviour and practices in matters related to family building) will be conducted among a sample of national women of reproductive age, using appropriate sections of the Demographic Health Survey where possible. This allows for comparison to other countries, including Arab ones, some of which have achieved much lower fertility than the Gulf. The conclusions of the project will constitute essential applicable knowledge for data producers, policy makers, stakeholders and researchers with whom the project will engage for the entire duration of the project.