Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)
Countries face many challenges to achieve its development goals. Some of those challenges are tangible and could be overcome by putting in a little extra effort. But there are some challenges that take time and need collective efforts to overcome.
Saudi Arabia has one of the most modern civic infrastructures in the world and since its establishment the Kingdom has been continuously working to modernize all sectors from education to health care. Saudi Arabia is a country covering an area of about one million square miles with a population of about 30 million. The problem is not the number of people in the country but it is average growth rate. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. As a result, we have the highest percentage of youth versus the total population. And whenever this important issue is raised, many people say that there are countries that have more population than ours but there is a difference between the total population of a country and the number of people in each household. In other words, many Saudi homes have an average of more than five children. And raising this number of children and taking caring of them requires more time and more financial means. The number of dependents not only overburden heads of the families but it also put burden on the country’s planners in the development of infrastructure and creation of new jobs.
Saudi Arabia is now on the road to the most extensive and most ambitious plans to develop the country and raise the living standards of the Saudi citizens. So, it is important to tackle any obstacle that will slow down or divert the long-term plans. And one of them is the need for serious family planning. There are some cities’ sub-divisions in some major Saudi cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah that has 10 times the population of the capital of Iceland. In some cities’ sub-division that are few square miles with a total population of about a million people of which is 70 percent are less than 20 years old. And in this case, it is virtually impossible to have enough schools, hospitals, fire stations, police stations and other supporting facilities in such a small area with such high number of population.
At this stage, the country has the means and assets to support the current population growth but the country is faced with another dilemma. The higher number of youth in a population, the more difficult it is to deal with the growth trend. Raising young children, taking care of them, following their progress in schools and looking after their general health is time consuming and needs funds. And the more population growth per family, the more people will tend to change their lifestyles. We see many Saudis take their kids especially the very young to private schools not necessary because these schools are better but just because their classrooms have fewer students. But, at the end of the day, these private schools are burden on the head of the family’s pocket. And no one can imagine if he or she needs to enroll five or six children in private schools. And according to many, a Saudi family with a monthly income of SR15,000 ($4,000) will only be able to raise and take care of two children.
Saudi Arabia is still one of the most prosperous countries in the world and has a very high standard of living, but it is important to put a milestone for long range plans for better future. Population growth can be a useful mean to make countries more prosperous and productive through better utilization of the youth but it can also be a burden on the national budget and resources. We have very high number of youth that can be a vital source to help develop the country but only if we raise them, teach them and encourage them to be core of development not a burden. Our youth are given free education, free health care and very generous social welfare. But, at the same time our youth have to be encouraged to look at the future and adapt to the fast- changing world. Free lunches don’t last forever and the faster the population grows, more hardships the youth will face.
Written by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim. Defusing the Population Bomb reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.