MENA’s ageing population could lead to difficult times in the near future

Increasing life expectancy is one of the major indicators of growth and development.

In the Arab word, an increase of 16 years since the mid-1970s was observed.  Traditional family networks are more and more replaced by western style nuclear families that as a result are making government provided social services vitally important.  Additionally, this is aggravated by the fact that the respective governments have simply not planned accordingly for the well needed infrastructural and social services to support a larger retired population.

Due to better medical facilities and an increase in the life expectancy rate, most of the MENA countries will have a much larger elderly population than they have experienced in previous years.  Life expectancy across the Arab world averages now about 68 years, up from 52 in 1970-75 and in 2000, approximately 10 million people in the MENA region were aged above 65 years.  In 2030 this segment bracket will make nearly 50 million.

After the youth curve reaches its peak in 2030 the entire age structure will change and the increasing senior population will become a significant burden concern in a developing region like MENA which still needs to create adequate pension funds, old age benefit plans, healthcare programmes and facilities like old age homes for the senior citizens.

In Saudi Arabia for instance, the number of retirees rose from 250,000 to 404,000 now.  In 2006, most of them were low wage earners with no or low pensions schemes.  Amongst the elderly population, 76% are illiterate, which only adds to their level of dependency.  In addition, nuclear family households are a rising trend in the region.  In Saudi Arabia, 52% of elderly people currently live in such households.   Without the support of traditional joint family systems, the demand for external support systems like old age homes is projected to increase in the future.  At present however, free social care centres are few if not inexistent, housing only 0.3% of the total 65+ population.

On the back end of the “demographic window of opportunity” there is another population bomb potentially waiting to blow up.  This is going to put an added pressure on the younger generation as they are forced to step in for their government and take care of their aging parents.

It is expected to have decentralised, lightweight systems from the private sector, designed from the bottom up to create the necessary supports that was not provided by governments.  These government might on the other hand, bolt back and commit huge budgets into fast-track schemes so as to cope with these increasing waves of senior citizens.