Saudi Arabia's Population Statistics Unveil Surprising Realities

Clock Icon Jun 14, 2023
Saudi government relies heavily on its youth for shaping the country's future and invests significantly in their progress. (Source: Shutterstock)

Saudi government relies heavily on its youth for shaping the country's future and invests significantly in their progress. (Source: Shutterstock)

The recent publication from the Saudi General Authority for Statistics reveals that as of 2023, Saudi Arabia has a population of 36.33 million, with a population density of 16.90 people per square kilometer. The median age of the population is 32.4 years. Saudi Arabia, as the largest country in the Middle East, accounts for approximately 0.46% of the global population and ranks as the 41st most populous country worldwide.

In a country where accurate population statistics were previously perceived as having little importance among citizens, it calls into question: why has the government chosen to release precise figures and statistics for the first time in 12 years?

Culture of Not Telling

In Saudi schools, students learn about population when they study geography, typically starting in Year 5. Two decades ago, this would have been their first encounter with this concept. It wouldn't be entirely incorrect to say that at some point in the past, Saudis collectively believed their population to be consistently around 23 million, while knowing that expatriates accounted for about 5 million of the total.

The reasons for this perception are unclear, possibly due to infrequent publication and limited attention given to population data. However, a shift occurred in the early 2000s with the necessity for economic progress.

The government had to establish a new economic infrastructure to boost the economy, which involved creating various agencies to diversify the economy and implementing new rules and regulations. As a result, Saudi citizens were exposed to figures related to the workforce, unemployment rates, and job seekers.

During this time, the perceived population gradually grew to approximately 29 million. Occasionally, figures revealed by international organizations or reported in the media either supported or contradicted these numbers. One may wonder why the perception of population was not considered important. The lack of awareness regarding the significance and importance of population growth and counting can be attributed to the fact that it was not emphasized.

Citizens were not provided with sufficient information, and there was no specific reason for this oversight. People believed that the registration processes for births and families were sufficient to maintain a healthy population count. However, when unemployment became a pressing issue due to conflicting rates of population growth, these figures started to matter as people directly experienced the consequences.

Consequently, the quality of health and education services suffered. It was during this time that people began to realize that the lack of accurate population data could be connected to the government's shortcomings in these areas. As a result, government campaigns aimed at raising awareness started to show their effect, and people became more receptive to understanding the importance of accurate population data.

Population Count in The Old Manner

In the past, population counts in Saudi Arabia were manually conducted. Officials from the Saudi General Statistics Authority would knock on doors, asking residents for the number of people living in each household.

However, many residents were hesitant to provide an accurate count due to various reasons, such as having unauthorized household workers. Unwilling to share private information with the government, they sent them away or provided false information. A lot of people were very wary of sharing their demographic data internationally due to concerns about privacy. Cultural or religious sensitivities can make it difficult to collect certain types of data.

Conducting detailed population surveys or participating in international studies can be costly and technically challenging. In the past, Saudi Arabia might not have had the resources or the technical capacity to participate. Gathering accurate data requires a well-developed statistical infrastructure. If the necessary infrastructure wasn't in place, this could have hindered Saudi Arabia's ability to participate in certain studies or surveys.

The importance of these counts was not clear to many. I remember a colleague sharing that her neighbor refused to let a male officer into his home to prevent exposing his family to strangers. So the authorities started sending female workers. This procedure has not stopped until now but is now considered a supportive tool rather than the main source.

Digitalization Helped

The population counting in Saudi Arabia, once a manual and often inaccurate process, has transformed today into a crucial digital endeavor that provides precise demographic data. Today, however, with digitalization, all information is systematized and connected, making population counting more accurate and important than ever for Saudi society.

A fact that has shown through its result, giving Saudis who may have doubts and objections to give out their information the reason and benefits of this procedure. Saudis understand that this data plays a fundamental role in shaping the country's policies, decision-making, and economic planning. According to the 2022 census report by the country's General Authority for Statistics, Saudi Arabia's population has swelled to around 36.2 million, 42% of whom are foreign nationals, and 63% of Saudis are under 30.

Despite an average annual population growth of 2.5% since 2010, the census reveals a decrease in the number of foreign residents from a peak of 14.6 million in 2016. This drop coincides with the imposition of extra fees on families of foreign workers and was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, which saw over a million foreigners leave the Kingdom.

In a recent press conference, the Economy and Planning Minister Faisal Al-Ibrahim praised the census as the "most comprehensive and accurate" in the country's history, underscoring its crucial role in planning, decision-making, and supporting the investment environment in the Kingdom.

The Challenge and the Hope: Young Generation

In comparison to Western countries, such as the United States or European nations, Saudi Arabia's population has a much younger median age, presenting both challenges and opportunities. The challenges include high youth unemployment rates and the need for education and skills training, while the opportunities lie in a potentially dynamic workforce that could drive economic diversification and innovation.

The country's dependence on foreign labor, which is more significant than in most Western nations, also influences its social policies and economic strategies. The latest census illuminates a young and rapidly growing Saudi population, which presents challenges and opportunities for the country.

While the Kingdom faces high youth unemployment and the need for extensive skills training, it also has the potential of a dynamic workforce that can fuel economic diversification and innovation. All the understanding that has been published with the reports previously was not as accurate and comprehensive as it is today. They may not have been needed as much nor available, and therefore people did not understand their importance.

But today, the fundamental changes that Saudi Arabia is undergoing make these reports more essential for many reasons, but most importantly, to make the right tailor-made decisions for the population available. If you ask many people today, they may give a different story about why they were unwilling to participate in the population count. It may be because they are ashamed to say how they were thinking.

As Saudi Arabia navigates this demographic shift and its Vision 2030 initiative, maintaining a balance between diversifying the economy, creating millions of new jobs, and sustaining a diverse workforce will be crucial.

Despite the challenges, the youthfulness of the population also represents an untapped resource that, if managed correctly, could drive the country towards a prosperous future.

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