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DIABETIC DANGER: The Dark Side of the Gulf’s Economic Boom
Oil wealth has given Kuwait and nearby countries in the Gulf some of the highest per capita incomes in the world. But it has also created lifestyles - overeating, high-sugar diets, cushy jobs and heavy reliance on automobiles for transport - that are leading to an explosion of diabetes in the region
July 7, 2012 5:38 by Reuters
Genetic factors apparently contribute to the Gulf’s high incidence of diabetes, an incurable disease in which the body has difficulty absorbing sugars and which is closely associated with obesity, scientists say. It can lead to cardiovascular problems, blindness, strokes and kidney disease.
“Research suggests that people (in the Gulf) have a lower set-point at which their body-mass index levels trigger the onset of diabetes,” said Maha Taysir, endocrinologist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Clinic (ICLDC) in Abu Dhabi.
However, even expatriates living in the Gulf have a higher incidence of diabetes than they do in their home countries, Taysir said. This suggests lifestyles are a major reason for the region’s problem.
Just two or three generations ago, many inhabitants of region made their living through strenuous work such as fishing, goat-herding and pearl-diving.
The development of the Gulf’s oil riches changed lifestyles drastically, luring tens of thousands of people into comfortable jobs at lavishly funded state enterprises, or allowing them to live on ample unemployment benefits. Physically tough jobs in the GCC, such as construction and oil field operation, are almost entirely done by millions of foreign workers.
Gulf rulers responded to last year’s political unrest in the Middle East by increasing welfare benefits for their citizens to buy social peace, which some officials in the Gulf have conceded privately risks further reducing the pressure on people to work.
“Exercise is the single most important factor for reducing diabetes … but it takes a lot of work to get patients here to follow a lifestyle they really don’t want to,” Taysir said.
Some Gulf residents believe the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991 may have contributed indirectly to the spread of obesity by fostering a junk food culture. Fast food outlets blossomed in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries where thousands of U.S. troops were stationed, and remained part of daily life after the troops withdrew.
“The lifestyle, the luxury we live in, the lack of activity and our fatty junk food culture are all contributing factors… Food is delivered, kids play sitting down at their computers… even physical education is a written exam,” said Fadli.
Even for the wealthy Gulf oil exporters, the financial costs of diabetes are unwelcome. Medical care is heavily subsidised, and the UAE spends $272 million on diabetes treatment annually. A study by Abu Dhabi health authority estimated the overall social costs of the disease at about $1.9 billion.