How many people are there in the Arab world? No one actually knows

The region is woefully short on censuses, impacting governments' ability to serve its people

A screengrab from a video posted on YouTube by the Saudi General Authority for Statistics about the 2022 census. General Authority for Statistics / YouTube
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“The researcher is on a national mission, and their time is limited,” warns a voice at the end of a recent advert for Saudi Arabia’s upcoming census, due to start next week. The light-hearted video urges overly gracious Saudi families to refrain from inviting census-takers into their homes for food or coffee, thereby delaying their work.

If a deluge of traditional hospitality is their biggest worry, Saudi census-takers have it easy. The Middle East has a long, and mostly difficult, relationship with censuses. The earliest in the region (and the world), held 6,000 years ago, were a grim affair – used by the Babylonians, in what is now Iraq, to plan for war. Three thousand years later, in an attempt to consolidate his political power, the Biblical King David is said to have tried a census, only to have been punished by God for his vanity – according to scripture, anyway.

The Middle East has a long, and mostly difficult, relationship with censuses

Millennia later, power politics continue to make population data-gathering efforts in much of the Middle East a fraught affair. As a result, no one actually knows how many people really live in the region. Iraq, Syria and Yemen, for instance, together are thought to account for more than a quarter of the Arab world’s population, but it is difficult to say for certain because none of them has had a census in a generation.

Iraq’s last census, in 1997, did not even include the country’s autonomous Kurdistan region. The region was expected to conduct its own population count in 2007, but Kurds are still waiting for it to happen today.

A new Iraqi national census is expected to start this November – postponed from 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be of huge importance. A previous attempt, in 2010, was cancelled at the last minute because of reports of Kurdish gangs attempting to drive Arab residents out of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The city’s demographics could be a deciding factor in who gets billions of dollars of oil revenue – the Kurdish regional government, or the one in Baghdad.

KIRKUK, IRAQ: A general view of the city of Kirkuk.

Kirkuk is an ethnically diverse city in which there is often tension and outbreaks of violence.

Photo by Ali Arkady/Metrography

Lebanon has not held a census since 1932 – an incredible fact given its entire system of governance is based on representation for various religious groups according to their share of the population. But of course, that is the very reason a census is so controversial there; those favoured in the balance of power would rather not acknowledge any change in the numbers.

In Syria, which had its last count in 2004, the outbreak of civil war prevented the next round. But understanding Syria’s population is important for getting a handle on the state of the regional economy. Statisticians suspect the country’s population has declined by nearly a fifth, from unnatural deaths as well as mass displacement, since the war started. The millions of Syrian refugees who have flooded into neighbouring countries have an impact on the economic health of those places, as well as Syria itself. For example, they are thought to comprise at least a seventh of Lebanon’s population (though, again, without a Lebanese census, it’s hard to be certain), exacerbating the Lebanese unemployment crisis. The hundreds of thousands of others who have fled to the West could one day provide a big source of remittances back to Syria as it rebuilds – but how big? No one really knows.

NGOs and international agencies have tried to piece together a better picture on Syria, but they have been stymied by the Syrian government. In 2018, the International Organisation for Migration conducted its own Syrian census to help donor countries judge the population’s aid needs. But the data has been considered too sensitive for wide release, a former IOM employee on the project says, because it could reveal figures that contradict the government’s own propaganda or unwittingly expose respondents.

Even in Palestine and Israel, where population surveillance is high, the decades-long political fight over the status of Jerusalem has led to a quarter of a million people being counted twice. Israel, which claims authority over the whole city, includes all 332,000 of its Arab residents in its census. The Palestinian Authority counts the 265,000 Arabs in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem in its own. The population involved may seem small, but it comprises 10 per cent of Palestine’s West Bank and 20 per cent of Israel’s Arab population, according to each country respectively.

Those favoured in the balance of power would rather not acknowledge any change in the numbers

In each of these instances, the common problem is deep dysfunction in the state’s relationship with society. And it is, in some ways, a catch-22: accurate censuses are blocked by dysfunction, but they are also instrumental to achieving a functioning state. While their role may be clearest in democracies, where they help to apportion elected representatives, they are essential for countries with other political systems, too. They help to ensure that populations not only have their needs met, but thrive. “Decision makers,” as the Saudi General Authority for Statistics notes, “need to make informed decisions to assist in developing public services, such as hospitals and schools.”

Of course, there are obstacles in the way other than politics. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are deeply impoverished countries with constrained resources. But institutional commitment can help to overcome these factors. Egypt, the Middle East’s largest country, has the most successful history of census-taking in the region, having held one, on average, every 10 years for the past 140 years. It has achieved that feat through wide-reaching public awareness campaigns and a strong sense of discipline and organisation among the responsible staff. Almost immediately after the 2006 census was completed, the country’s 44,000 field staff set to work preparing for the most recent round in 2017.

And while the Egyptian census’s methodology is neither flawless nor uncontentious – Coptic Christians, for example, have complained of being undercounted – the fact that it is completed at all yields important insights for the Egyptian government. Last year, for instance, Hala El Said, Egypt’s Planning and Economic Development Minister, gave a presentation showing the population pyramid based on the 2017 census. Her ministry’s calculations using the data gave an alarming prediction: that Egypt would be due for an enormous population boom sometime between 2030 and 2042. That finding has since spurred the government to embark on a wide range of health and development programmes aimed at slowing population growth and avoiding a large spike in poverty.

This begs a serious question for several other Arab states that have been unable to muster the political will, organisational ability and public buy-in for their own surveys. What problems are they missing?

Published: May 03, 2022, 1:06 PM