Many citizens and several lawmakers who have been crying hoarsely that Kuwait’s lopsided demographic structure between citizens and foreigners is to blame for much of the country’s social and economic woes, will probably be pleased to know that for the first time in almost three decades, the population of Kuwait experienced a sharp fall in 2020.

Latest available population figures show that the total number of people in the country dipped by 2.2 percent in 2020 to reach 4.68 million, from the 4.8 million in 2019. The main reason attributed to this decline in population numbers is that in 2020, more expatriates left the country than entered it.

According to recent demographic data from the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), despite the modest increase in Kuwaiti population by 2 percent, the decrease in total population was driven by a sharp decrease in expatriate numbers, which were down by 4 percent. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, more than 130,000 expatriates are estimated to have left the country, and the percentage of expatriates in the total population has fallen to 68.7 percent, the lowest level reached in seven years.

Fall in foreigner numbers is said to be fueled partly by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in a weak and stagnant economic environment that led to many companies retrenching their employees. The decrease in expat numbers also reportedly comes from various proposed changes by the government to the residency laws and the continued Kuwaitization drive, especially in public-sector entities.

Moreover, job losses, higher living costs, and the ongoing pandemic have forced many expatriates to send their dependents back home. Available figures show that the number of expatriate dependents has continued to decline, falling by 0.4 percent year-on-year (y/y) in 2020 after a drop of 0.3 percent in 2019.

In a review of the population structure and future job market in the country, economic analysts at the National Bank of Kuwait say that despite the continued decline in the number of Kuwaitis under the age of 15 (down to 0.2% y/y in 2020 from the 0.4% a year ago), this cohort of the population of around 493,000 still makes up more than a third of the Kuwaiti population, who will form a major chunk of the job market in a decades time. At the same time, growth in the number of working age nationals above the age of 15 who form the current working population has over the last couple of years remained steady at 2.7 percent.

The current young population and the potential increase in the country’s future youth pool, point to an urgent need for the authorities to significantly expand the number of jobs that will be available in the coming years. But that begs the question, jobs from where. The already bloated public sector can no longer absorb more nationals; the number of expatriates in public sector jobs have also been whittled down to a minimum in many government entities; the private sector remains reluctant to employ citizens, finding it more cost- and work-effective to hire workers from abroad.

After a growth of 4.9 percent y/y in 2019, total employment in 2020 recorded its largest decline in almost 30 years of 4.2 percent. This decline reflects both, a slowdown in hiring among Kuwaiti nationals, as well as a sharp drop in expatriate employment.Expatriate employment reportedly dropped by 5.2 percent in 2020 after an increase of 5.4 percent a year earlier, on the back of a decline in hiring activity especially in private sector, which was down by 5.3 percent. Excluding domestic workers, the drop in expat employment was even higher at 7 percent in the private sector.

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