x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

UAE fertility following worldwide trend down

Challenge is to ensure enough people to support development as working women delay maternity.

DUBAI // The UAE has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world but its women are having fewer children, leading to fears the number of births will level out or even decline over the next 20 years.

While many countries struggle with access to resources for growing populations, the challenge for the UAE lies in ensuring there are enough people to support its further development.

The country's fertility rate - the average number of births for each woman - fell from 4.4 in 1990 to 1.9 in 2009, the most recent statistics from the World Health Organization show. The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad) attributes this to urbanisation, delayed marriage, changing attitudes about family size and increased education and work opportunities for women.

Dr Asma Al Mannaei, the head of the surveillance section at Haad, said the trend is part of a global decline in fertility and an inevitable consequence of modernisation,

"It's part of a demographic transition as the country moves from an agricultural society to a modern society," Dr Al Mannaei said. "It's normal and it's to be expected."

The fertility rate for Emirati women in the capital is higher than the countrywide level, at 3.36.

That compares with 1.62 for expatriates in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Al Mannaei said that was also unsurprising as many expatriates came to the emirate to pursue careers, rather than settle down with a family.

The rate for Emiratis was slightly down from several years ago, she said, but no immediate cause for concern.

"It's not as optimum as what we want but it's not a warning to take any action," Dr Al Mannaei said.

The UN Population Fund has projected the world's 7 billionth citizen will be born today. Projections suggest that by 2050 there will be 9.1 billion people, leading many to predict energy and resources will be stretched to breaking point.

But other studies predict a worldwide decline in fertility will bring about a fall in the world population after 2070. In most advanced economies, average fertility rates have fallen to 1.7.

Dr Pankaj Srivastav, the man who introduced IVF to the Emirates, said that in the 20 years since he opened the Conceive clinic in Sharjah he had seen decreasing fertility.

"The way lifestyles are changing across this part of the world, I would not be surprised to see instances of declining fertility and declining birth rates," Dr Srivastav said.

He said falling fertility might be nature's way of redressing a growing world population. "In the old times there's always been famines, wars and plagues," Dr Srivastav said. "These are the things that have neutralised a rising population. Now it's infertility."

Projections from the UN Population Division say there will be as many as 94,252 births in the UAE this year. That figure will peak at 96,715 in 2013, but fall to 79,268 by 2029.

Rima Sabban, an assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University, said the falling birth rate was a concern, especially for nationals.

"Owing to the rate of development here women are encouraged to get educated and participate in the workforce," said Ms Sabban. "Whenever that happens we usually see that there is a diminishing birth rate. This is what's happening in the UAE.

"This is a problem because the Emirates is a society that needs to increase its population. Even now they don't have enough Emiratis to manage the society and the economy."

Ms Sabban suggested the country's leaders should consider extending naturalisation to those of Arab or Muslim descent to boost the population.

Dr Saleema Wani, an obstetrics and gynaecology consultant at the Corniche Hospital, said women were focusing on careers instead of families.

"Most people delay pregnancy and this affects the number of babies," Dr Wani said. "The number of births from nationals has reduced.

"In the past, locals used to have much larger families."

mcroucher@thenational.ae