Kuwait's demographic crisis

In light of its heavy dependence on foreign workers and rapid population growth, Kuwait must reform its educational and labor markets to address these problems.

al-monitor A woman fills out an application form for a job posting in Kuwait during a job fair, Manila, Phillipines, Sept. 20, 2010. Photo by REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo.

Topics covered

population, migrant workers, kuwait population, foreign workers, demography

Feb 6, 2014

Despite the small populations of Gulf countries, demographic growth has started to pose problems to the political and economic leaders of these countries.

Kuwait is a prominent example in this regard. In the beginning of the oil age in the early 1950s, Kuwait’s population numbered only 150,000. However, increasing oil revenues, growing infrastructure projects, increasing service requirements and the establishment of many businesses and activities, have led the government to open the door to a foreign workforce to take up jobs and new professions.

Today, Kuwait’s population is estimated to be a little more than 3.8 million, 1.8 million of whom are Kuwaiti nationals. This means that the population is now 25 times the size of the population in 1950, while the world’s population is 7.2 billion compared to 2.5 billion in 1950.

Population increases at different rates in different countries, depending on the degree of development and modernity, as well as economic and social conditions. For instance, if we take into consideration the number of Kuwaitis, it is nine times the size it was in 1950 — an unprecedented increase in modern history.

Population growth in countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Morocco was much less pronounced. During the same period, Egypt’s population grew from 22 million to 84 million. In Turkey, the population increased from 21 million to 79 million, while in Morocco the population grew from 9 million to 32 million.

Population growth in Kuwait is the result of many factors, including the naturalization process during the 1950s and 1960s. This is not to mention the high birth rates and natural increases, which were the result of the improvement in health care, quality of life and greater longevity of life. Some of these developments are considered positive and in line with improved living standards. However, these developments have begun to impact sustainable development.

Demographic features reveal some interesting indicators. It is worth noting that 42% of Kuwaitis are under the age of 15, and 50% are under the age of 20. This generates further commitments to education, healthcare and stresses the importance of creating job opportunities. Should the Kuwaiti population continue to grow at the same rate — currently 3.2% — there will be increased pressure on services, facilities, infrastructure and the need to allocate additional financial resources.

There are 762,000 Kuwaitis of working age, but those who are working or who wish to work number only 400,000. Moreover, 76% of workers take up positions in the government and the public sector, while about 21% work in the private sector and 3% are allegedly unemployed. This is why the Kuwaiti economy relies primarily on foreign workers, who represent 84% of the country's workforce. Meanwhile, the national labor force accounts for only 16%.

It appears there are few possibilities to reform the work market, as many object to reforming the sponsorship system, which provides fertile soil for corruption and easy profits. This system has been criticized by many human rights organizations and the International Labor Organization.

Moreover, a low level of education is very common among foreign workers in Kuwait, which explains the low professional potential and low wages. This suggests that enterprises, namely in the private sector, rely on labor forces more than on modern technology and capital efficiency.

Worsening the labor market problems is the rise of the country's domestic worker population. There are more than 600,000 domestic workers in Kuwait, representing 16% of the total population, 27% of non-Kuwaiti nationals and 32% of the non-local workforce.

The Public Authority for Civil Information estimated that the number of domestic workers in Kuwaiti homes accounted for 30% of the members of these households. This data raises important questions about the possibility of achieving economic and social development in light of low participation on the part of Kuwaitis in the labor market, and the high dependence on foreign workers.

These problems are the result of the policies that have been espoused for over 60 years, and will not change without the political will and awareness to make changes in the patterns of social burdens. This emphasizes the importance of educational reform, which would create a culture that respects work duties and seeks to convince citizens that the improvement of living conditions requires accepting job opportunities at all levels.

The government and the National Assembly ought to adopt a different approach, aimed at reducing the rapid population growth and stopping child allowances, which is fixed at 50 dinars ($177) per month for every child up to seven children, for government employees. It should be noted that there are demands to increase these allowances.

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