The UAE has recorded the highest population growth rate in the Arab region because of a sharp increase in national births, better health services and continued influx of expatriates to benefit from expanding business opportunities, according to official figures.

Between 1983 and 1995, the UAE's population galloped by around 5.7 per cent while the rate was estimated at 5.31 per cent between 1995 and 2001, showed the figures published in the Arab economic report distributed by the Abu Dhabi-based Arab Monetary Fund.

The rate even quickened in 2002, when the population soared by more than six per cent to 3.48 million, from 3.28 million in 2001. Growth is projected at around 6.3 per cent in 2003, when the population is expected to exceed 3.7 million at the end of the year.

The increase is more underscored during the oil boom of late 1970s and early 1980s, when the population surged from less than a million in 1979 to 1.35 million in 1985. It jumped to 1.84 million in 1990 and 2.4 million in 1995.

"Population growth in the UAE is the highest in the Arab world and one of the highest in the world," said a report by the Arab Labour Organisation.

"This is due to high birth rates among nationals, lower death rates and longer life expectancy due to improved health services, and the ongoing migration of expatriates to the country."

The UAE is following a policy of encouraging its citizens to have more children as nationals have been a minority in the country's demographic structure.

Such a policy is backed by incentives involving free services, social welfare and cash allocations.

But foreigners have also recorded high growth rates over the past decade despite the departure of some of them following the expiry of their labour contracts.

Experts said the influx of expatriates seeking work in the UAE has eased over the past years compared with the oil boom period, but added more are still coming in than going out. They attributed this to the expanding business opportunities and a steady economic upturn in the UAE due to a surge in the non-oil and private sectors.

According to the Arab economic report, prepared by the AMF and three other regional organisations, Tunisia recorded the second highest population growth rate in the region, standing at around 3.58 per cent between 1995 and 2001.

Yemen came third with an average 3.45 per cent, while growth was estimated at 3.29 per cent in Libya, 3.23 per cent in Saudi Arabia, 3.21 per cent in Djibouti, 3.19 per cent in Jordan, 2.99 per cent in Mauritania, 2.98 per cent in Kuwait, 2.96 per cent in Iraq, 2.71 per cent in Qatar, 2.56 per cent in Sudan and 2.09 per cent in Egypt.

The lowest rates of one per cent and 1.2 per cent were recorded in Somalia and Algeria respectively.

The figures showed that Egypt remained the most populous Arab country with an estimated population of 64.6 million at the end of 2001, more than a fifth of the combined Arab population of around 288 million.

Algeria came second with a population of 32.9 million, while it was estimated at 31.6 million in Sudan, 29.2 million in Morocco, 24.4 million in Iraq, 22.7 million in Saudi Arabia, 18.9 million in Yemen, and 16.7 million in Syria.

"The total Arab population was estimated at around 288 million at the end of 2001 and is projected to rise to 315 million in 2005," the report said. "Growth stood at around 2.3 per cent in 2001, the highest in the world after the Sahara region."

In density, Bahrain topped the list with an average 1,010 people per square kilometre, one of the highest in the world. It was followed by Lebanon, with an average 363, and Kuwait which had a population density of 126 at the end of 2001.

Density stood at 91 in Syria, 65 in Egypt, 62 in Tunisia, 58 in Jordan, 56 in Iraq, 41 in Morocco and 39 in the UAE.

Mauritania and Libya had the lowest density of three people per square kilometre each, followed by Oman with a density of around eight.

Despite the surge in its population, the UAE has maintained its high per capita income, standing at $20,602 at the end of 2001, the second highest in the Arab world after Qatar, which had a per capita income of $28,140. Both countries are classified among the richest nations in the world in terms of per capita income.

Experts attributed the high income in the UAE to a sharp increase in its oil production over the past two decades and a steady expansion in non-oil sectors, which now account for more than two-thirds the gross domestic product.