Projects drive population rise in Qatar

Qatar’s population is expected to continue its upward trend as the projects-led economy moves forwards, but questions remain over what will happen when the infrastructure boom ends. Published in MEED, 23 September 2013

Over the past decade, Qatar’s population has more than doubled, from 744,000 people in 2004 to more than 1.7 million today. According to Qatar National Bank (QNB), the population is expected to rise to just under 2 million people by the end of this year and cross this threshold sometime in 2014.

There have been ups and downs, though, and it is not growing quite as fast as it once did. In 2008, the population rose by 19 per cent in just one year and by 13 per cent the next year. That breakneck speed slowed in 2011 to a trickle of just 1 per cent growth, but since then has picked up again to an anticipated 6.6 per cent this year.

Building programme

The key driving force behind this trend is the amount of money being spent on construction projects. The capital city is getting a new port and airport, as well as a metro system, and new towers have mushroomed in Doha’s West Bay area over the past decade. A series of stadiums must be built in time for the football World Cup in 2022 and a national rail network is also being constructed. All these schemes need large numbers of overseas workers.

Most locals prefer working for the government rather than any private sector employer, although the Qatari participation rate in the private sector has improved from 6.8 per cent in 2008 to 8.5 per cent last year, according to QNB.

The huge number of expatriate workers means that Qataris make up just a fraction of the overall population, with the 265,000 locals representing about 14 per cent of all those living in the country at the end of 2012.

The expatriates skew the numbers in other important respects too. As most of the foreign workforce is made up of unaccompanied men working in the construction and services sector, there is a notable gender imbalance in the country. Men make up 87.6 per cent of the labour force and 74 per cent of the total population. The dependency ratio is very low too. For every 100 people of working age, there are fewer than 19 who are either too young or too old to work. That is the lowest level in the world and compares to a global average of 49 per cent for high-income countries and 53.5 per cent for the wider Middle East and North Africa region.

The Qataris are becoming an even smaller minority as time passes. The number of births has been rising steadily in recent years, from about 18,350 in 2009 to 20,623 in 2011. But even so, with about 12 births a year for every 1,000 people, that is still well below the rate at which the overall population is expanding and not all the births will be to Qatari women.

The average age at which Qataris get married has been fluctuating over recent years for both men and women. In the case of local men, it fell from 26.6 years in 2009 to 26.5 years in 2010, before rising again to 26.7 in 2011. Women tend to get married slightly younger, but the average age has followed the same pattern, dipping from 23.9 in 2009 to 23.8 years in 2010 and then rising again the following year to 24.1.

Family size

The fertility rate has been falling more consistently. The average number of children a woman bears fell from 3.8 in 2009 to 3.4 in 2011. That is high by the standards of most high-income countries, where the fertility rate is just 1.7 children on average, and higher than the figure of 2.6 for the region as a whole.

At the same time, life expectancy among locals has been on the rise. The average number of years that a newborn child can expect to live increased from 76.7 in 2009 to 78.6 by 2011. That is better than any other country in the Arab world and close to the average for high-income countries globally, which stood at 78.8 years in 2011.

The number of deaths per 1,000 people, known as the crude death rate, is exceptionally low at just 1.1 in 2011. That is partly a consequence of the young population – the median age that year was less than 30 years – but it is also a reflection of the fact that expatriates are only allowed to stay in the country if they have a job. Anyone too ill or too old to work is liable to be sent back home. However, the infant mortality rate is high compared to other rich countries. In Qatar, there are 7.4 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births, compared to an average of 5 for high-income countries in general.

Qatar popular areas

Qatar has one of the most heavily urbanised populations in the world, with some 98.9 per cent of people living in urban areas, according to the World Bank. Almost half the population lives in and around Doha, which had a total population of 796,947 in April 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available. More people live in the capital city today than in the entire country in 2004 and it has a population density of 3,394 per square kilometre (sq km).

The next most popular areas, if density is to be a guide, are the Umm Slal and Al-Dayyan municipalities. The latter covers a small coastal area to the north of Doha and has a total population of just over 43,000, with a density of 181 per sq km. Umm Slal is an area inland from there and has about 60,500 residents, with a slightly higher density of 190 per sq km.

More than a quarter of Qatar’s population live in the Al-Rayyan municipality, although since it covers most of the west of the country, it has one of the lowest levels of population density, at just 78 per square km. Overall, the population density level in 2011 was 149 people for every square km. That is a bit of a squeeze compared with other parts of the region, where the average ratio was 34.5 per square km.

While Doha had 81.3 per cent more people in 2010 than it did in 2004, all the other areas of Qatar saw their population at least double and in some cases grow far faster than that. The greatest increases were in Al-Dayyan and the area to the north of that, Al-Khor and Al-Thakhira. Both these municipalities saw their populations grow by more than 450 per cent in 2004-10.

Overall, the country’s population is expected to continue growing in the near future. “The driver of growth domestically is the infrastructure build-out,” says one economist in the region. “The population is growing because of the labour that is being brought in. That is going to be a big driver of growth in domestic consumption and investment as well.”

However, there is a question mark around what the population of the country might be in the longer term, once the major infrastructure projects have all been built. Unless more schemes are launched, the expatriate workers will have to leave and the country could find its population falls away even more quickly than it has grown over the past decade. One way the situation could be addressed is if the diversification strategies being pursued create enough jobs in industry and professional services to make up the shortfall, but it will not be an easy task.