Ethnicity, Religion, and Demography in the MENA Region

Let’s shed some light on the changing demographic tendencies of the MENA region. An interview with Khayrion’s senior researcher Erzsébet N. Rózsa. 

The Middle East and North Africa – from Morocco to the Iranian–Afghan border, from the Republic of Turkey to the southern border of Sudan and Somalia, as well as the Arabian Peninsula – is home to some 600 million people, who present a wide variety of ethnic and religious communities, on the territories of some 24–25 countries.

Ethnically, the most populous community by far are the Arabs, who represent some 473 million people in the 22 member states of the League of Arab States (including Palestine),[1] over a combined territory of some 5 million km2. Being an Arab is not a category of race, but a term based on shared culture, language, history, and the – proudly proclaimed – fact that Allah/God revealed the Quran in the pure Arabic language (fusha).

Besides the Arab states, there are three ethnically different – non-Arab – states, which are also politically and economically central in the developments of the Middle East and North Africa: Iran (the Islamic Republic of Iran), Israel,and Turkey, most recently officially “re-named” Türkiye. Both the Iranians and the Turks belong to different ethnic and linguistic groups, and while their languages are very much different from Arabic (and from each other, too), both include a huge Arabic-originating vocabulary due to the religious impact and the Quran.

The population of Israel consists of Jewish people (coming from all the Ashkenazi/European, Sephardi/North African, and Mizrahi/Eastern Jews) and some 1–2 million Palestinians, excluding the Occupied Territories (East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip – in the Arab terminology called Palestine). Altogether, there are approximately as many Jews as Arabs in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The Jews ethnically also belong to the Semitic peoples, just like the Arabs, and their language, Hebrew, also belongs to the family of Semitic languages, where Arabic and other – by now mostly dead – languages belong, e. g. Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

Most people associate the Middle East merely with Islam. However, this region is home of another two of the world’s largest monotheistic religions – Judaism and Christianity.

That’s true, although Jewish communities have been practically disappearing from the wider region – either by settling down in the new State of Israel, or by wandering away to third destinations. Thus, the most numerous Jewish community that remained is living in Iran; it consists of approximately 10,000 people, and it is decreasing very fast, despite the fact that, in accordance with the Iranian constitution, they send one representative to the Iranian Parliament, the Majles.

The Christian communities belong to several different churches; the biggest among them is the Egyptian Coptic Church, which has its own Pope, at the moment Tawadros II. They make up approximately 8-10 percent of the Egyptian population, now approximately 15 million. Furthermore, there are other, smaller Christian churches/communities, e.g. the Maronites in Lebanon, who are one of the “state-constituting” actors of the Lebanese state with the Presidency ensured to the Maronites by the constitution.

It is usually taken for granted that the number of the population in the Middle East and North Africa is growing rapidly. What is your take on this argument?

The fact is that the open source macro demographic data from the MENA region show a curve similar to that of Europe about 100–150 years ago, indicating that the number of children born to one woman (total fertility rate) is rapidly decreasing (from more than 7 in 1960 to the current approx. 2.6) due to urbanization and other globalization effects, such as education for example. This is accompanied by the dropping figures of the adolescent fertility rate (number of women giving birth to their first child before they are 18 years old, from 130/1000 in 1960 to 35/1000 in 2021), and the infant mortality (from 429 in 1990 to 177 in 2021).

However, lifespan has expanded significantly in the last 50–80 years (life length expected at birth was 46 years in 1960 and 75 years in 2021), which contributes to the growing total population numbers.

What demographic trends do you expect in the foreseeable future?

The aforementioned trends are present parallelly and have several implications, such as, for example, a new wave of demographic rise (young people are reaching the age of forming families and having children, even if much fewer than their parents or grandparents used to). Another serious implication is that in a world where the state is usually and typically one of the biggest employers, positions remain occupied much longer, giving a sharp rise to young unemployment.

According to the expectations and forecasts, these figures suggest that the populations of the Middle East and North Africa will reach their highest figure sometime around 2050-2100, and then, following a stagnation period, will start to decrease slowly.

[1] Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.