Demographic Change in North Africa: A Case Study by Country

It is hard for anyone who has not traveled extensively in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) over a period of decades to realize just how much each nation in the region has changed in terms of basic demographics. There has been a massive increase in population in every MENA country since the end of World War II and the colonial period, and the nations in North Africa are no exception.

The Emeritus Chair in Strategy has prepared a three-part analysis of the MENA’s demographics and detailed how population pressure has impacted the region’s stability.

These reports provide graphs and tables that show the population trends from 1960 to 2021, and projections through 2050, drawing on estimates developed by the UN and World Bank. They show that all MENA countries have experienced massive increases in population through 2021 – sometimes increasing the total population by more than five times.

They are introduced with summaries of the problems they face in national development, security, and stability and show that the resulting pressures on their economies, governance, and social stability must have been a key factor affecting their stability. They also show that if today’s demographic forces dominate future population growth, there is a near certainty that this population pressure will present steadily growing problems through at least 2050. The same is true of the other demographic data and estimates the authors could find.

The country-by-country data on total population growth, the rise in young citizens needing jobs, the number of people over 65 years of age depending on support from the working population, the hyper urbanization of many countries, and the shifts away from a traditional life in agriculture to some extent speak for themselves.

They also highlight the extent to which the analysis of MENA states needs to be expanded to address the impact of population growth. There has been surprisingly little attention to the impacts of this growth in recent years in estimates of MENA country stability and security. If anything, the potential impact of massive population growth was of far greater concern in the 1950s to 1970s than it is today. This is not only true of the level of concern over its impact on economic development planning but of its impact on political analyses of internal stability.

Today, many studies on MENA country stability and security focus almost exclusively on the current political and economic situation and ignore the impact of past and future population growth on the need for economic growth, particularly for added jobs, social services, infrastructure, and effective governance. They also ignore the extent to which such growth has already encouraged unrest, political violence, and civil conflict.

Many studies ignore the extent to which population growth has put major strains on governance, has led to far more interaction between different sectarian, ethnic, and tribal groups, and has transformed the internal stability of every state in the MENA region. Most notably, it has led to massive increases in urbanization and participation in the market economy, and, so far, it has done so in spite of internal conflicts, war, economic crises, and all of the other pressures that have shaped a troubled region.

There has also been limited attention to the extent to which population growth has changed the culture and values of the populations involved. While many elements of traditional culture and social practices remain, every country in the region has been forced to adapt to a very different economic structure, need for literacy and modern education, and contact with outside values.

At the same time, the projections of population growth by sources like the World Bank and UN do not seem to assess the impact of population growth on problems in development, job creation, and urban services. They also do not address key limits on growth like adequate water supplies or the impact of climate change and the growing concern of some experts that many MENA states will come under serious pressure for climate migration by 2050.

Population growth is only one force for change in a region that is one of the most volatile regions in the world, but the graphs presented in this analysis show just how sharp it has been in the past and how likely it is to be a major force for at least the next two decades. At a minimum, economic development must be tied to estimates of population growth, governments need to plan for the future and not simply for the present, and high-risk areas like water and climate change need to be examined in the light of population growth. It also is all too clear that no country in the region can live in the past in religious or political terms. The tensions that divide populations today are shaped in part by forces that are constantly growing, and there is no way to return to the past or even cope by trying to live as if further change was not inevitable.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Paul Cormarie

Research Intern, Emeritus Chair in Strategy