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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 February 2019

The biggest gender imbalance? It's not in China

Between the ages of 16 and 65 in the UAE, there are 2.7 males for every one female, a skewed balance unsurpassed by any of the other 200-plus nations with available data.

If the sands of Arabia could talk, they would bear witness to a particularly gruesome form of female infanticide practised by the tribes of antiquity. A sleeping baby girl is slowly lowered into a shallow sandy tomb. At the moment of her premature inhumation she awakens, but the anguished cries are muffled; Mother Earth is made an unwitting accomplice in the suffocation of her female offspring.

The arrival of Islam outlawed this macabre practice of gender selection, but we can only guess at how many infant girls lay buried beneath the desert sands. In his novel The First Century After Beatrice, the author Amin Maalouf describes a world where gender-selective technology results in an irreversible gender imbalance, with dire consequences for the planet. Like all good science fiction, Maalouf's futuristic doomsday scenario resonates with current reality.

People are already questioning whether polyandry, a woman marrying several husbands, will become common in China and India. China's one-child policy, it is argued, has raised levels of infant mortality for females and increased the rate of gender selective abortion, causing a demographic disaster termed "gendericide". This term might be a little sensational, given that best estimates suggest that for every 100 females, there are 120 males, but in a country of 1.3 billion, that's a lot of ineligible bachelors.

The worst case scenario is that 20 per cent of men remain single. Even if the situation is not quite "gendericide", massive gender imbalance has some significant consequences for a society, including marriage patterns, fertility rates and unrest among young men unable to find partners. According to the CIA World Factbook, the UAE also has a huge gender imbalance. Between the ages of 16 and 65 there are 2.7 males for every one female, a skewed balance unsurpassed by any of the other 200-plus nations with available data. The next closest to the UAE is its neighbour Qatar, with 2.4 males to each female. The UAE's extreme gender imbalance, however, is not the legacy of infanticide or contemporary gender-selection technologies. The skew is attributable to the number of male expatriates within the nation's workforce.

Many expatriate workers are employed in almost exclusively male environments and live in all male camps. Are there social and psychological consequences to living in such skewed environments? Equally, how is the broader society affected by such an imbalance? One obvious consequence of a testosterone concentration is a higher likelihood of violence, aggression and general unrest. The article The guards who keep 60,000 immigrant workers safe in The National last month focused on the UAE's labour camps, illustrating the point from the a security guard's perspective. One of the fights reported sounds totally hormonal to me: a camp resident is described as punching another in the face over the right to use the new broom. Another story reported in The National last year focused on the issue of "workers" leering at women in the malls. This story prompted a fierce debate over the implementation of a ban for "workers" at al Bawadi Mall in Al Ain.

One cannot help but speculate that perhaps related problems of human trafficking and prostitution are also associated with the gender skew. Prostitution, like other commercial activity, is governed by the laws of supply and demand. In their erudite and outrageous book SuperFreakonomics, the economist Steven Levitt and the journalist Stephen Dubner describe how the sexual revolution in the West massively affected the profitability of prostitution. They argue that when women began entertaining men outside of wedlock, the demand for, and thus the price of, the prostitute's services, decreased drastically.

A similar situation is satirised in The First Century After Beatrice, as women from Brazil, Egypt and the Philippines are airlifted on "humanitarian grounds" to meet the ever increasing European and US demand for members of the endangered sex. Perhaps the labour camps, often described as small cities, are a microcosm of India and China should gender trends continue. Can we foresee a time when the new Asian superpowers are airlifting women from other nations to offset their testosterone emissions and reduce the "gynocidal" footprint?

Justin Thomas is a psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Natural Science and Public Health at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

Updated: February 3, 2010 04:00 AM

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