Something you don’t know about Qatar and something you know about China (but it’s wrong)

Despite obvious differences, Qatar and China have something in common: disinformation, myths and lack of information surround these two countries. Looking at data instead of anecdotes discloses surprising facts and enables a better understanding of these countries’ demographic policies. It also sheds light on how population policies can drive unbalanced sex-ratios.

by Lucia Tamburino and Philip Cafaro

Qatar wasn’t a country we heard much about before this football world cup. This is odd, because there’s a lot of talk about climate change and the need for rich countries to reduce their carbon emissions. But despite being at the top of the list for per-capita emissions, Qatar is usually omitted from such discussions.

Conversely, China is often mentioned in the context of climate change, which is not surprising considering that China is currently the biggest producer of carbon emissions by far. However, China is also the most populous country in the world. Many people argue that rich countries and not China are mainly responsible for climate change, as rich countries have lower total emissions but much higher per-capita emissions. Those people usually pick as examples the US, Australia, Canada and European countries–while systematically omitting Qatar and other Arabian Gulf countries.

This is weird, because Gulf countries are among the richest in the world, with Qatar among the richest for several decades. Qatar scores fourth globally in per capita GDP, well ahead of the US, Australia, Canada and all European countries, with the exceptions of Luxembourg and Ireland.

Even more relevant, Qatar is the country with the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the world, by far. Qatar has 32.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions per capita, while the US has 14.7 metric tons per-capita: less than half! Qatar is followed in the ranking by other countries in the Arabian Gulf, albeit with some distance: Kuwait (22.0), Bahrain (20.3) and the United Arab Emirates (19.3). Dependence on desalinated water and air conditioning is a big contributor to these high figures.

A map of the world showing per capita ecological footprint by country. Source: World Population Review. Note that Mercator projection gives a strongly biased view of the size of the country, where countries near the Equator are generally reduced in size compared to ones near the poles.

Likewise, when considering other indicators of environmental impact, Qatar is often at the top of the ranking. For instance, Qatar is the country with the highest ecological footprint: 14.7 gha/capita, according to the Global Footprint Network. It is followed by Luxembourg (12.8), the United Arab Emirates (9.0) and Bahrain (8.7). Qatar also has one of the worst eco-balances in the world, according to a recent quantitative assessment, again together with several countries in the Arabian gulf.

With this poor environmental record, it is surprising that it took a football World Cup to put Qatar on the media’s radar.


Skewed sex ratios

Another example of misinformation concerns unbalanced sex-ratios in China and the Arab world. As you probably know, in China (and some other Asian countries) there is an unbalanced sex-ratio, especially in rural areas, with males more numerous than females. Another thing that you probably “know” is that the cause of this imbalance was the one-child policy. Under the one-child policy in China, women were mostly allowed to have only one child and therefore, since families preferred boys, women practiced selective abortion, resulting in a surplus of males. This is what the media and some scholars told us and what most people believe. What the media did not tell us is that, with increased access to technologies for prenatal sex detection, selective abortion became a common practice not only in China but also in other countries where boys were preferred over girls. Actually, the idea that the male surplus in China is due to the one-child policy can be easily debunked with a couple of simple questions.

First: did the imbalance first arise in China with the one-child policy? The answer is no. For as long as we have data in the past, a disproportion between males and females has existed in China (and other countries, see below). It was especially sharp at the end of the 1930s, about 50 years before the one-child policy! So, it is clear that it cannot be attributed to that policy, but rather to the anti-female cultural bias among rural populations. Females were less valued than males. As a consequence, female mortality was much higher than male mortality in poor rural families, because girls were the main victims of malnutrition (males were fed first, females only after if there was something left), infanticide, child abandonment, and sale. All these practices were sadly common within poor families in China, especially during periods of crises, massive famines and wars, like the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.

Moreover, the biased sex ratio exists also in many other countries, including countries where coercive demographic policies were never implemented, e.g., Pakistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and some Southeast European countries.

If we look at the data instead of listening to common narratives, we can learn many interesting and perhaps unexpected things. For instance, China is not the country with the most unequal sex-ratio in the world, it is not even in the top 10. There are almost 20 countries with a more skewed sex-ratio.

However, it is true that the sex-ratio imbalance at birth is unnaturally high in China. The estimated value in 2020 was 1.11 (111 male for every 100 females), which is higher than the world average 1.07 (note that most of this is due to biology: naturally, around 5-6% more males than females are born). This suggests that selective abortion in China may still be practiced now, although the one-child policy ended in 2016. The same sex-ratio at birth is observed also in India, which never had a one-child policy. This further confirms that culture more than policy is at the root of the horrible practice of sex selective abortion.

When looking at the sex-ratio not at birth but in other age ranges, even more surprising facts pop up. For instance, in the age range between 25 and 64 years, Norway has a slightly higher sex-ratio imbalance than China. Yes, Norway! This clearly suggests that the causes for an unbalanced sex-ratio can be diverse and include more than demographic policies.


Qatar again

Now, let’s take a closer look at numbers. In China the overall sex-ratio is 1.06, namely 106 males for every 100 females, which is high but comparable with the sex-ratio of many other countries. For comparison, India has a sex-ratio 1.08, Egypt 1.05, Norway 1.03, the United Kingdom 0.99.

At the top of the ranking, in the country with the highest imbalance in the world, the sex-ratio is 3.39: 339 men for every 100 women, more than 3 times more males than females! Can you guess which country this is?

It is, again, Qatar. Qatar is a country where coercive anti-natalist policies were never implemented, yet it has the most unbalanced sex-ratio in the world, more than 3 times higher than China!

West Bay, Doha, in Qatar. Photo: Visit Qatar

Again, Qatar is followed in the ranking by other countries in the Arabian gulf: United Arab Emirates (2.56), Bahrain (1.53), Kuwait (1.38), Saudi Arabia (1.30) and Oman (1.18). The huge disproportion between males and females in Qatar and other Gulf states is caused by massive imports of workers. Many live miserable lives, but are desperate to escape their overpopulated homelands with apparently fewer or worse job opportunities.

When people talk about unbalanced sex-ratios, they typically mention China and point the finger against its demographic polices, while Qatar and other Arabian Gulf countries are inexplicably omitted. Likewise, immigration is seldom mentioned, even if a high sex-ratio can also emerge as the result of certain types of immigration, especially among adult and juvenile age groups. We need more honest information, because the media today do too much cherry picking and make too many omissions. As a result, they contribute to spreading an inaccurate picture of the world and a lot of misconceptions and myths, especially around demographic policies.

For people who are intellectually honest and genuinely interested in a better understanding of the real world, the best advice I can give today is this. First, do not think you know something just because you read it on the media. Second, look for data, look at data, and learn how to understand data. Third, ask questions!




Monica Das Gupta, Why Girls Are Coming Back in Some Asian Countries after Neglect, Scientific American, 2017

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, Gender Ratio, Our World in Data 2019

Lucia Tamburino and Giangiacomo Bravo, Reconciling a positive ecological balance with human development, Ecological Indicators 2021

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18 thoughts on “Something you don’t know about Qatar and something you know about China (but it’s wrong)

  1. It’d be interesting to find out whether the news of extreme sex-based violence coming from countries such as India or Pakistan (eg. gang rapes, feminicides) are related to the imbalanced sex ratio there, and whether this correlates with other types of violence as well (frustrated young men who can’t start a family, etc).
    Conversely, it’d be interesting to know whether the imbalanced sex ratio in favour of women in older age groups due to male mortality is a factor in the outmigration from Eastern Europe. Over the years I’ve noticed that a great number of Eastern European women marry Western men, but I’ve never witnessed the opposite. I’ve also wondered how this, if true, might affect gender relations and expectations in a country such as mine, but who would ever risk looking into that?
    Already some countries in the world “import” wives, including from Eastern Europe. I’ve been wondering how many widows are being created by the current war in Ukraine (in Russia especially), and what is going to happen, if someone is considering a global-scale matchmaking experiment. I don’t know what would be sadder – people that want a partner but don’t have one, or women whose partners died due to alchol or violence marrying men whose sisters were aborted or starved to death…

  2. Unbalanced sex ratios may have less to do with coerced abortion than with the “one and a half child policy” in China that allowed rural familes whose first child was a girl to have another. This policy came in just a few years after the stricter “one-child” policy by the early 1980s. Obviously that policy will skew sex ratios if there is a strong son preference. Stopping after one boy means that family will have no girls. Whereas the family that has a second child has another chance for a boy. So, if I did the math right, this gives a ratio of 1.25 just from the boy and stop plus girl and have another. No abortions needed. Might account for higher birthrates of males in many cultures, come to think of it. Need to look at the sex of previous children to see if number of children depends on sex of first child. And there must have been some willingness to pay the fines to have more kids. Chinese fertility never got as low as Singapore or Korea. Was about 1.7 during the “one-child” period. A Chinese demographer I met at PAA insisted that the “one-child” policy had no effect on births. Fertility rates had been dropping anyway. Others disagreed and said it prevented as many as 500 million births. Science has trouble in non-experimental settings figuring out counterfactual outcomes. What would have happened if Hitler had won the second world war. Anyway, I hope improving status of women and modernization are slowing weakening the son preference in all cultures.

    1. Another issue with China is that, as far as I know, ethnic minorities were somehow exempt from the policy. And China has a lot of minorities, more or less consciously competing with the Han majority. That might account for the higher fertility rates compared to neighbours that didn’t have the one-child policy.

      It’d be interesting to find out whether there is any culture in the world where women are preferable to men at birth. When you raise livestock, females are almost always more valuable. Now that I think about it, a reason for the preference for sons is actually that in many cultures, when they marry, they “bring” a woman (i.e. free help) into the household, whereas with girls you raise them and then give to others. I actually read this explicitly stated in a short story by a local (Friulian) female writer from the 19th century who described peasant culture extremely well. In many cultures, from rural China to ancient Jewish, women were expected to stay with their husband’s family even when he died. The Naomi and Ruth story in the Bible is about this, and how virtuous Ruth is for it.

      I think that gender preference is destined to backfire somehow. Either you lose many men, or women become more valuable because they are scarcer, or they revolt against a misogynistic culture by having less children (much of East Asia now).

      I find it extremely fascinating that, if you don’t interfere, women will always give birth to slightly more males, every single year. I’ve looked at the Italian statistics. Males always more numerous, until around the late 40s age group, when women surpass men and it stays that way.
      It’s almost like nature knows us better than we know ourselves.

  3. It was not a good idea to mix gender ratios in with ecological footprint. It is like page 3 of the Sun. (full-page photo of topless beauty, discontinued in 2015 after more than 44 years).
    The comments have duly zoomed to sex ratios and ignored the ecological footprint. Hallo – this is an overpopulation website. Who cares what gender the overshoot is, when it is in the billions?
    I also don’t see how the per capita footprint helps, though it is interesting. Surely it is the total ecological footprint of each nation that tells us what we really need to know? Per capita figures get skewed by having a small population, for a start. Divide your consumption by a small population, and you get a larger figure. So Luxembourg is no.2 after Qatar. The really big consumers get hidden amongst rich Nations with tiny populations.
    Meantime, the total list is much more revealing. China, USA, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Germany, South Korea, Mexico. These are the top ten “Big Baddies”, in descending order, followed by Canada, France, UK, Italy, Iran, South Africa, etc. etc..
    Egypt is high – no. 21. I was staggered see how low Egypt is on the per capita footprint – but of course, its population is gargantuan, and thus dividing consumption by its population leads to a misleadingly low figure. Qatar is no. 59, just above Israel at 60. Still bad for such small countries – but more realistic.

    1. Total is important, but country sizes are arbitrary, so even if you don’t care about per capita you still need to know how much land there is in a country and how much life it can support. Otherwise you could compare the total of Canada to the total of San Marino, which would make no sense. If you split Brazil in half, the total consumption of each half would nominally be less, but the overall situation would be the same as before.
      Also, sex ratio matters. Not only I approve of this blog talking about different issues, and not just only about how there are too many people on the planet period, but it does matter how many women there are since it’s only women (for now) who can give birth. One man could potentially impregnate thousands of women, so women are where the bottleneck is. Men who can’t find a woman to marry or partner with, when all women are taken because there’s fewer of them, won’t have children.

      1. OK – but if we are going to widen the focus a bit, priority should be given to the torrent of studies since the 1980s proving that male sperm is increasingly under attack from Endocrine Disruptors, and large numbers of men are becoming infertile due to this pollution which is in everything in the form of microparticles.
        This biological attack on masculinity is seen in several species, but notably in top-of-the-food-chain ones like mankind. It is widely documented and scientically proven – but almost as unmentionable as overpopulation. Whilst A.I. (artificial insemination) by anonymous males with plenty of viable sperm is becoming more common, I don’t think most women are going to want to be impregnated like livestock, nor to want to raise a child without a living and present Father. Will men consent to play the role of Father when it is not their DNA in the child? Some will I suppose, especially if there is no other option. But the whole thing is a violation of their personal integrity almost as psychologically damaging as physical abuse of a woman by a man, I imagine, though I should not try to compare the two things really. The only mitigating factor, is that it is not a deliberate personal attack on them by another human being, but just a result of the way we all live.
        Is this going to be Nature’s way of decreasing human numbers? Or one of them?
        It is certainly less controversial than abortion and euthanasia, as it is somewhat outside human control and not a matter of choice. Would men (who are dimly aware something has gone badly wrong), be relieved to hear that there is an external cause to any personal problems in that area, and that it is no fault of theirs except insofar as they form part of high-tech humanity and its negative aspects?
        I think population campaigners should grasp this nettle firmly, and declare that Nature is going to find her own way to cut numbers and there is no need to accuse us of wanting to deliberately exterminate people.
        The problem then becomes a practical one of trying to ensure that in about a thousand years or more, many of these pollutants have been removed or are at least reduced – not so as we can go back to overpopulation, but so that a remnant of humanity can persist in reasonable good health without completely extinguishing ourselves (and many other species too). The Earth does have self-cleansing mechanisms – but they are not coping at the moment, and of course they can never cope with radioactive waste.

    2. Edith Crowther, totals are important but are affected by the size of a country, which can widely vary. Note that a large countries might have a high footprint only because it is large, but at the same time it might also have a large biocapacity that compensates the footprint (like Canada). There is a reason why many people prefer to use per-capita indicators, as they allow for a better comparison across countries.

      An indicator that reconciles the advantages of both total and per-capita indicators is the “eco-balance”, which is based on the ratio between total ecological footprint and total biocapacity. It reflects the actual ecological burden of a country, while keeping inter-country comparability. I proposed it in 2021 but unfortunately it is not widespread yet.

      Interestingly, Qatar is one of the worst countries of the world (ranking 4th) even according eco-balance. Qatar is a country with many negative records, some of which are little known.

      1. There is a website devoted to EcoBalance – “The International Conference on EcoBalance, organized by the Institute of Life Cycle Assessment, Japan (ILCAJ), has been held in Japan since 1994 as a biennial conference. Setting life cycle thinking as its core concept, EcoBalance is recognized as one of the world’s premier conferences for academic, industry, and government professionals. EcoBalance serves as a forum for discussions on environmental performance evaluation, information disclosure regarding evaluation results, and for the development and implementation of discussed methods.”
        This year saw the 15th Ecobalance Conference – although the 14th was in 2021, so it is now annual rather than biennial – this probably reflects the increasing urgency of the situation. I have great faith in the Japanese – they are desperate to return to some sort of sustainability, they did the necessary for two centuries during the Tokugawa Shogunate when they slammed the doors of the country firmly shut to foreign trade, and in modern times they have almost zero immigration which is a crucial component of Sustainability.
        Regarding Canada – I am puzzled by the increasing use of euthanasia (legal in Canada and called MAiDm Medical Assistance in Dying) because of a combination of poverty and lack of medical care has made life not worth living for some people. This does not tally with Canada’s status as a large biocapacity nation. Something has gone wrong. It does, however, tally with Canada at no.11 on the “needing 4 planet Earths” list.

    3. Edith Crowther,
      You write:
      “There is a website devoted to EcoBalance – “The International Conference on EcoBalance, organized by the Institute of Life Cycle Assessment, Japan (ILCAJ), has been held in Japan since 1994 as a biennial conference. Setting life cycle thinking as its core concept, EcoBalance is recognized as one of the world’s premier conferences for academic, industry, and government professionals.”

      I didn’t mean that EcoBalance, but the indicator EB (eco-balance), it’s a different thing! You can read about it here:

      “Regarding Canada – I am puzzled by the increasing use of euthanasia (legal in Canada and called MAiDm Medical Assistance in Dying) because of a combination of poverty and lack of medical care has made life not worth living for some people. This does not tally with Canada’s status as a large biocapacity nation.”

      I don’t see the link between euthanasia and biocapacity, since biocapacity is an indicator of ecosystem productivity. Anyway, Canada has a large biocapacity and a positive eco-balance despite a high per-capita footprint. This is mainly due to its low population density (actually population and footprint are strictly linked)!

  4. Edith, I agree, and I have actually suggested it as a topic for this blog 🙂 There’s the scientific part of the issue, and the moral component, which is also very interesting. Is it a good or bad thing that it is happening? Is it a good or bad thing that there are ways around it?
    I do not have a strong opinion on artificial insemination (well, I am against it for livestock and pets actually, but for different reasons), but you’d be surprised, there are many women that see the option of choosing a father for their children from a genetic catalogue actually appealing. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a market for it.
    As for radioactive waste, wildlife at Chernobyl seems to be thriving, and I read an article saying that even radioactivity isn’t as damaging to natural life as the presence of humans.

    1. I think it is a fact, surely, that children need fathers as PERSONS, not just as spermatozoa – it is not a moral question. Women who decide that their child can do without one ….. well, I will not say what I think of them, which really would be a value-judgment (and not printable to boot).
      On the topic of Endocrine Disruptors – although men will squirm initially, I believe it would help their mental health if it were discussed openly and at every possible opportunity. Of course as with all serious topics like Death, Divorce, Extinction, etc., the 5 stages of Grief will occur, so it is important not to give up just because men have gone into Denial, Anger, Depression, and Bargaining, before they reach the calm waters of Acceptance. Men can be very scary when they go through these stages – so can women, but at slightly lower voltage usually.
      Men will want to change the situation of course – and they MIGHT have the power to do so, since their genius created most if not all of the Disruptors. But they might be better off accepting that like Death, they cannot change the present reality, and must simply try to find ways of protecting future generations if they insist on doing something about it (which would be great).
      Radioactivity is a mutagen (DNA damage) and a teratogen (embryo/foetus damage). In both cases, defects are not always easily detectable. DNA damage is passed on down in the genes to later generations. Damage during pregnancy seems not to be inheritable, provided it has not affected DNA. Some accidental genetic mutations caused by external agents (e.g. pesticides, not only radioactivity) might be beneficial, I suppose, but they are more likely to be harmful. Of course non-accidentall “controlled” genetic engineering is a present reality – but it does try to only bring about ONLY useful alterations, as with plant and animal breeding. Still, for humans it is a much thornier topic than for other species.

      1. You say you are against abortion. But you are also against raising children without a father present. So if a woman got pregnant but the man leaves or declares to be unwilling to be in the child’s life, or dies, would you judge that woman more for aborting, or for raising a fatherless child?

  5. Re: euthanasia.
    Edith, I respect that you are social conservative, but sometimes life becomes unbearable not due to lack of care or resources (Canada has public healthcare, unlike the US), but because something has happened to people that forces them to live in constant pain with no hope of it ending. I think it’s inhuman to force people to keep living that way if they don’t want to.
    In Italy we’ve had a few high profile cases of people with extremely painful, unsolvable conditions who went public with their desire to put an end to it humanely and legally; anyone who’s looked into these individual cases and has some compassion will agree that they shouldn’t be forced to live in pain against their will.

  6. Personally I hope the TOP team will produce further reports on China. There is currently a huge amount of hysteria in some quarters concerning China’s ‘demographic crisis’. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post is particularly obsessed with it and publishes multiple one-sided articles on the subject every month (See here: Needless to say, it would be great to read a more balanced analysis.

    1. It’s crazy how there are people who think there aren’t enough humans in China!
      It’s hard to get reliable information from the country but I think that Covid has shown that when you have that big a population with such high densities in some areas, there is basically no way to avoid large human suffering in case of a pandemic, whether by locking people up with no food or letting them out with insufficient public healthcare. Other densely populated Asian countries have done better, but they are also smaller overall.

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