The Gulf Obesity Problem


Fraser Clarke

Over the past three decades few regions have changed as much as the Gulf has. Once quiet, dusty, traditional desert villages have been transformed by the oil boom, which has lead to the creation of some of the most luxurious, modern metropolis in the world.

Whether it’s the glamour of Abu Dhabi, or the more traditional Saudi port of Jeddah, the region has changed dramatically. So too however has its health, with the prevalence of lifestyle related diseases now greater than ever.

An estimated 37 million people throughout the Middle East and North Africa region are now diabetic, whilst a staggering WHO report labelled Qatar as ‘The Fattest Nation on Earth’ after it showed that an estimated 71% of the country’s population were overweight.

What factors have lead to this deadly obesity epidemic though?

Traditional Diets

Despite this rapid development, traditional diets remain commonplace throughout the region, with these often containing higher quantities of fatty ingredients than those consumed in the West or Far East.

Meat forms the basis of most traditional Arabic meals, with meat consumption almost tripling in some part of Saudi Arabia in recent times. Consuming such high levels of protein during most meal times puts Arabs at a disadvantage when compared with others.

Rapid Development

The infrastructure in the Gulf region has also had a major part to play in the spiralling obesity rates, with rapid development inadvertently promoting a sedentary lifestyle.

A vast majority of the major cities across the region were built with cars, not pedestrians, in mind. This is especially notable in Kuwait City where pedestrian walkways are virtually non-existent.

Car running costs are cheap, and so are taxis, and so the vast majority of people will travel even short distances under petrol power. Active travel is a rare sight across the Gulf, with roads being especially unsafe for pedal bikes.

That’s not all, the quick development combines this poor active travel infrastructure with an ever increasing range of Western ‘Fast Food’ outlets. A potentially fatal combination, and one which appears to be a major reason behind the soaring obesity rates.

Social Situations

The majority of Arab social situations are based around eating. Whether it is visiting a work colleague and their family at home, visiting a high quality restaurant with family or quickly grabbing some ‘Fast Food’ during a break, the social scene revolves around eating.

Further to this hosting elaborate dinner parties with plenty of food has been a way to show off wealth for many people, especially those who have just came into money. Given most of the Gulf’s high, tax free, salaries this can make these extremely common regionwide.


There are two ways in which the Gulf’s hot, dusty climate affects the health of its nations. Firstly there is the intense heat, that makes exercising outdoors difficult, and forces people into the air conditioned malls. Then there is the vast, arid landscape that makes growing fresh fruit and vegetables impossible.

Much of the fresh, healthy produce sold in the Gulf has to be imported, and this means that it comes at an increased cost. Whilst money isn’t a major issue for most Western expats in the region, it can put people off buying healthier foods, especially when processed produce is available at a fraction of the cost.

The heat meanwhile is an issue that cannot be overcome. Only the growth in inside, air-conditioned gyms (ideally based in the large malls) can help encourage Gulf natives and expats to get the exercise they need.

Genetic Issues

Perhaps one of the less explored areas, and one which few people think about when researching the prevalence of lifestyle related health issues in the Middle East, are the genetic issues unique to the region.

In the more traditional areas cousin marriages remain widespread, and these can lead to family genes (such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease) being carried on to the next generation. Obesity is also said to breed obesity, and so children of overweight parents are likely to be overweight themselves. Educating the young people of the Gulf at an early stage in their lives could be the key to preventing the number of obesity related deaths growing further in the future.

Overall there are a range of factors that combine to explain just why the Gulf is facing such a difficult battle with obesity. Many of the countries in the region are now implementing schemes to educate people, promote active travel and a healthy diet, however only time will tell how successful these are at overcoming a range of major cultural, geographical and genetic hurdles.

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