An Uphill Battle: Tackling Obesity in the GCC
March 14, 2014
In August 2013, Saudi Arabia established its first obesity treatment center, just days after King Abdullah ordered weight-loss treatment for a Saudi man so heavy he had to be moved via forklift and airlifted to the hospital.
While many older Gulf Arabs remember years of hunger, the region now has some of the highest rates of obesity in the world. Sedentary lifestyles and diets full of fats and sugars are major culprits. As obesity has risen, so have related diseases, particularly diabetes. Obesity-related diseases alone are estimated to cost Gulf governments $68 billion annually by 2022.
The GCC states have drafted a regional policy aimed at increasing physical activity. Each nation has also taken its own, sometimes unconventional, approach to the issue. The UAE has hosted a ‘Your Weight in Gold’ diet program, a fitness campaign featuring cycling sheikhs, and appearances by famous athletes such as Kobe Bryant to inspire physical activity. A program in Abu Dhabi linked the renewal of government-funded insurance policies to diabetes screening. Saudi Arabia has expanded its healthcare services, building over 120 new hospitals and funding an estimated 11,000 bariatric surgeries in 2012 alone.
Yet stifling summer temperatures discourage exercise, and traditional clothing is intended to provide protection from the elements rather than freedom of movement. Gulf cities are rarely walkable, and cultural barriers to women’s sports mean that schoolgirls are often not even exposed to exercise. It may be an uphill battle, but at least uphill would mean more exercise.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.