The Current State of Knowledge

Arab Population in the UK

Study for consideration of inclusion of 'Arab' as an ethnic group on future census returns 

November 2004

By Dr Ismail K Jalili


History of Arab Immigration
Problems facing British Arabs
The Current state of Knowledge on the Arab ommunity in the UK
Problems of enumeration within census


The British Arabs Forum, in conjunction with the National Association of British Arabs, works to promote the Arab communities presence in the UK.  In order to facilitate this, it seeks to establish ‘Arab’ as a separate ethnic profile group on governmental and non-governmental statistics and consider that as a preliminary measure, inclusion on the next national census will be an important step forward.

History of Arab Immigration

The UK today is home to a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-faith community and the added feature of inter-ethnic marriage makes racial classification progressively more complex.  Included in this rich mosaic are British Arab citizens – perhaps 500,000 of them – originating from a wide spectrum of Arab countries.  In fact, and this is frequently overlooked – or possibly deliberately ignored – Arabs are arguably the longest-resident, non-European ethnic group in the British Isles.  Their presence is largely a consequence of Britain’s colonial past although it is known that the Romans brought Arab archers with them and established a town which is now South Shields.

In the 19th century, Yemeni seamen called Lascars sailed with British ships and many stayed to work in the docks and related industries, or the burgeoning rail network.  London’s East End, Tyneside, Liverpool and Cardiff became centres of small Arab communities.  By 1948 there were nearly a thousand Arabs in Tyneside, some marrying local women, thus giving birth to the hybrid British-Arab identity that many native-born British-Arabs, especially those of mixed ancestry, are now establishing.   In the 1950s, many of these migrated to Birmingham and Sheffield.  A number of Somalis from what was British Somaliland also settled in the same areas as a result of serving on British ships.  Frequently overlooked, but vitally important, the traditional trading skills of Syrians and Lebanese brought them to ‘Cottonopolis’ – Manchester.  The famous Arab historian Albert Hourani was born there.

Large-scale Arab immigration began after 1945, with the Palestinians; followed by Egyptians and Sudanese coming for professional advancement, and the 1960s saw Moroccans seeking a better life or more political liberty than was found at home.  Political repression in the home countries has continued to be a major reason for Arab immigration, bringing in the decades spanning the 1960s to the 1990s, Iraqis, Egyptians, Sudanese, Algerians, Somalis and some Gulf Arabs.

Greater London is the main centre for British Arabs, with an estimated 300,000 in the capital followed by other major cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff.  There are also traditional areas of Arab settlement such as Sheffield, where many Yemenis moved to work in the steel industry. 

Many Arab immigrants, whether coming for economic, professional or political reasons, always had the hope of returning home one day.  However, it has become increasingly clear that the ‘hope’ of return was actually the ‘myth’ of return.  ‘Home’ is now Britain.

In respect of religion; among the Muslim Arabs, there are both Sunnis and Shia.  There are also a number of Christians whose numbers include Eastern Orthodox, Copt, Catholic and Assyrian.  At the last count there were 17 Coptic churches in the British Isles with about 15,000 families. 

Problems Facing British Arabs

British Arabs are a racially and religiously diverse community and the situation is more complex with the burgeoning second generation who are sometimes of mixed heritage.

1.  British Arabs are virtually invisible within British society as a group, apart from negative public stereotyping.  They face discrimination in many aspects of life such as work, education etc; however, given that the standard ethnic profiling forms which now feature so commonly do not contain ‘Arab’ as a separate entity, this is impossible to monitor. 

2.  This lack of identification as a group also means that they are under-represented in both public life and in positions of authority in the private sector commensurate with their numbers.

3. Their exclusion from official statistics means that major future planning and development issues do not include this group.  These issues include, for example, planning of health and education needs.  Increasingly medical research looks at the health needs of particular groups within the community from which to plan future health requirements.  As with many other immigrant groups now settled here, Arabs have health needs and problems which are particular to them and unless there is a reasonably accurate guide to their numbers on which to base research, these health needs will go unheard.  This also applies to the field of education.

4. The absence of accurate information also has consequences for the requirements of Citizenship as recently introduced by the Home Office in that the absence of monitoring makes planning possible.

 5.  In psychological terms, they find the lack of recognition as a group to be increasingly unacceptable.  This applies to both first and second generation Arabs, who are still obliged to tick ‘other’ or ‘mixed other’ as their ethnic background.  They feel particularly aggrieved because despite the fact that they consider themselves to be British, they are unable to find a suitable category of ethnic origin which applies to them.

 6. In addition, the use of the criteria of ‘colour’ is found to be unacceptable for Arabs.  Even within one Arab country there is a total spectrum of colour from white to black and Arabs find it demeaning to categorise themselves under this section for deep cultural reasons.

 7.  In the pursuit of greater accuracy, National Association of British Arabs receives requests from such bodies as the General Dental Council regarding the numbers of Arabs and the possible introduction of ethnic profiling on their individual record bases.  I attach for your information a copy of their letter and the reply sent by the National Association of British Arabs.  I hope that this will illustrate some of the typical misconceptions.


The Current State of Knowledge On the Arab (Arab League Countries) in the UK

It is our contention that there are approximately 500,000 Arabs, both first and second generation, in the UK. 

We have studied the census returns produced by the 2001 census and based on those findings, it would appear that there were:-

100,822 people of Middle East origin;
68,715 of North African origin.

There were in addition:-
219,754 who identified themselves as 'other ethnic group' (excluding Chinese);
1,345,321 who identified themselves as 'other white';
155,688 who identified themselves as ‘other mixed’.

I note the numbers of people answering the ‘religion’ section also.  However, this does not assist Arabs who, whilst in the main are of the Muslim faith, also contain a proportion of Christians, Mandaneans and secular who would not have completed this section.

One of the pitfalls of attempting to enumerate an ethnic group from an area, estimated by the WHO to cover 5.25 million square miles, is its sheer diversity. Whilst those listed as Middle East/North African have attempted to put their geographic origin, the majority would prefer to have their ethnic background identified.  I would like to point out for your information that the countries which classify themselves as Arab, who belong to the League of Arab Nations are:-

African Arab Countries:

North African: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Sudan, Djibouti, Comoros.
East African: Somalia.

Middle Eastern (Asian) Arab League Countries:

Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen.

Top of the Page
Problems of enumeration within census
At the current time, there appear to be bureaucratic difficulties in including a separate box for Arabs in the ethnic profile section.  Attempts have been made to overcome this by adding Middle East as place of origin on the census forms.  However, this does not overcome the geographical diversity of Arabs (see section ‘D’). 

Neither does the census in its current state answer the needs of second generation Arabs (whether mixed or not) who, in the absence of a category of ethnic origin, are excluded.

The lack of recognition of Arabs as a separate ethnic group, and hence their exclusion, has serious consequences for the planning of services and monitoring of such problems as racial discrimination.

In areas where there are large clusters of Arabs such as central London, health authorities and educational bodies have taken such steps as translations of health guidance material in Arabic and the provision of translators in hospitals to cater for this.  However without more accurate data, such services will remain haphazard.

We are fully aware of the bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome in establishing any ethnic group as a category for official statistics.  However, we believe that it essential both, as previously stated for planning and development of services, but additionally to allow this large group of British residents to feel that they are fully recognised within Britain. 

In conclusion we would very much welcome the inclusion of ‘Arab’ as a separate ethnic group in the 2011 census. 

Ismail  K Jalili, FRCS, FRCOphth
Chairman, National Association of British Arabs

الدكتور اسماعيل الجليلي

Top of the Page