North Africa is highly urbanized. In Morocco, for instance, growth in the larger cities has slowed but small and medium-sized cities are proliferating.17 Urbanization has been fuelled by high fertility rates, substantial rural-urban migration, international labour migration and the concentration of economic activity in urban areas. Housing and administrative policies (including city definitions) have also contributed to urban growth.
Infrastructure development has not kept pace with this growth. Rural development activities (like Libya's enormous irrigation plans), often intended to counter urbanization trends, have received priority policy attention instead.
The Gulf States have some of the world's highest rates of labour immigration. Migrants are concentrated in the cities, contributing to this subregion's high urbanization levels.
Elsewhere, high levels of urban unemployment and underemployment have led many young workers to migrate within the region and to Western Europe, but tightening migration controls will reduce this outlet. Violent social movements and periodic unrest are becoming more prevalent. Food and fuel subsidies have eased living conditions, but also produced economic distortions; these subsidies cannot be easily reduced since urban populations rely on them.
Improved life expectancy coupled with high fertility has given the Arab region the world's highest proportion of children under 15. This portends growing difficulties in employment provision, infrastructure development and service delivery, particularly in education and health. Water supplies will be increasingly strained as personal, agricultural and industrial use expand. Urban settlements will encroach on surrounding agricultural land, forcing many countries to rely more on agricultural imports or grants. Traffic congestion will intensify unless public and private mass transport alternatives are developed.
In many of the region's cities, modern districts are set apart from traditional city centres and expanding slum settlements (frequently on the periphery). Historic areas are threatened by expanding development, and preservation efforts often conflict with economic restructuring priorities.
The feminization of poverty in the area is a cause for increasing concern. Armed conflicts and civil disturbances have displaced increasing numbers of women and their children. Such women become the heads of their households with few resources to provide for their families' basic needs, and limited opportunities to improve their situation.