November 10, 2020
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Income Inequality in the Middle East

Income Inequality in the Middle East

In this issue brief, Rowaida Moshrif argues that there is a high level of inequality in the Middle East region due to large income differences between countries and a severe concentration of income at the top of the distribution. The author obtains its estimates by combining surveys, tax data, and national accounts in a transparent and systematic manner (Moshrif, 2020; Alvaredo, Assouad, & Piketty, 2017). However, given the limited amount of data (surveys, tax data, and national accounts) available in the region, some of these estimates should be considered fragile and subject to revision. During the last decade, a series of popular movements took place in the Middle East. The main demand of demonstrators was social justice, which suggests that income inequality might be one factor responsible for the uprising.

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Key Results

  • The Middle East is the most unequal region worldwide: 56% of national income accrues to the top 10%, and only 12% goes to the bottom 50%.
  • Gulf countries have been the most unequal of the region during the last three decades: 54% of national income accrues to the top 10%. (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia)
  • Extreme concentration at the top of the distribution: the top 1% income earners own 23% of total income in 2019, almost twice as high as the share earned by the bottom 50%.
  • Inequality levels have remained extremely high for the last decades, with a slight decline in the top 10% income share from 60% in 2019, to 56% in 2019 due to the narrowing income gap between Gulf and Non-gulf countries.
  • Despite the high levels of inequality, they remain underestimated. The lack of quality survey data with huge gaps between survey years leads to an underestimation of the share of national income accruing to the top 10% income earners.


Figure: Income Inequality in the Middle East

This figure shows the evolution of the top 10% national income share, for Gulf and Non-Gulf countries, from 1990 to 2019. Gulf countries are more unequal non-Non-Gulf ones.

Inequality in the Middle East





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The author gratefully acknowledges funding from the European Research Council (ERC Grant 856455) from the French National Research Agency (EUR Grant ANR-17-EURE-0001), as well as from the United Nations Development Program (Project 00093806).