Riyadh: A scheme to curb marriages within relatives in Saudi Arabia is being intensified with a compulsory pre-marriage medical tests now broached to cut the high rate of genetic diseases among the population.

Dr Ayman Al Sulaiman, a genetic researcher and consultant at King Faisal Hospital in the capital Riyadh, told Saudi TV that a 2004 survey showed endogamy (marriage between close kin of the first or second degree or even in the same family) in Saudi Arabia was around 53 per cent. Now, that figure has climbed to 67 per cent.

“There should be intensified efforts to curb marriages within relatives," he said. "In this respect, I suggest compulsory pre-marriage medical tests.”

A drive to discourage marriage among relatives among Saudis was introduced 11 years ago.

The state-supported programme, dubbed 'Healthy Marriage', discourages endogamy. It has reported that 3.25 million Saudis seeking to marry relatives were tested since its founding 11 years ago.

Dr Al Sulaiman said the drive had succeeded in persuading at least 60 per cent of them not to go ahead with the marriage within close relatives.

“In the beginning, the response was below eight per cent… we are now encouraged to reach a response rate of 100 per cent,” said Dr Al Sulaiman.

Another expert warned that the practice of endogamy, if left uncurbed, could mean genetic diseases would remain high.

In 2014, the head of the Embryology Unit in Al-Ahsa Maternity and Children Hospital, Dr. Nihad Al-Kashi, blamed endogamy for up to 70 percent of fetal abnormalities in Saudi Arabia's Al-Ahsa region, according to an Arab News report.

Dr Al Sulaiman said Saudi population faces genetic diseases no other country has and has one of the highest  genetic disease rates in the world, estimated at one per 1,000. This compares with one per 4,000 in the United States and one per 8,000 in Japan.

"This means the ratio of genetic diseases in Saudi Arabia is almost eight times that of Japan,” he told Saudi TV.