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Issue No 16, Nov 4-10, 2002 | ISSN:1684-2075 | satribune.com

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UAE Eyes Ways to Discourage Marriage with Foreigners

Meena S Janardhan

DUBAI: Like many of his friends, young businessman Muhammad Al Bayan avoided marrying a local woman out of fear of the huge costs of a lavish wedding in the United Arab Emirates.

''There was no way that I could have organised the amount of dowry that I was asked,'' recalls Al Bayan, who is now married to an Indian woman.
''After a decade of inflated wedding bills and dowry demands, Emirati bachelors are increasingly unwilling to marry local women,'' he says,
especially in status-conscious Arab social circles where the average cost of a wedding had soared to 100,000 U.S. dollars by the late nineties.

''Many of my friends, unable to raise the six figure sums that many prospective in-laws demand and reluctant to fall into debt, have opted out by taking European, Asian or foreign Arab brides,'' he explains.

In Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, 1,239 local men married foreigners between 1997 and 2001, official figures say. Iranian brides topped the list followed by Indians, according to a study released by the Decision Making Centre at the Dubai Police.

The yearly marriage figures grew from 164 in 1997 to more than 300 last year. This trend is something that worries that UAE officials, who call it an ''alarming'' development that may affect local culture and be abused by foreigners who want to get citizenship.

In recent years, the UAE has taken steps, including the giving of financial assistance and imposition of fines of lavish weddings, to encourage more marriages among locals and discourage unions with foreign nationals.

Now, however, the government is considering proposals to go further and impose an outright ban on marriages to foreigners. Laws in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Qatar make it difficult for men to marry foreign women, though Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain have taken a more relaxed approach.

''As of today the United Arab Emirates is the only Gulf Cooperation Council country that does not curb such mixed marriages,'' said Brigadier Hader bin Khalaf Al Muhairi, director of the naturalisation and residence directorate.

The government is reviewing the UAE citizenship law as a means of discouraging marriages to foreigners. At present, a child born to an Emirati is automatically considered a citizen, but new proposals would limit that right to those born to Emirati fathers.

This has far-reaching implications. It would mean that an Emirati woman divorcing a foreign husband would find it almost impossible to win custody of her children -- but if the court grants custody to the wife, her children could, technically, be stateless.

For now, Hader says, the government is trying its best to encourage local marriages and to discourage lavish weddings, agreeing that grooms have a hard time shouldering ''exaggerated dowries, lavish weddings, and high costs of finding and furnishing a marital house''.

''Since the oil boom, Gulf countries have seen increasing competition between prominent families seeking to outdo each others' lavish weddings,'' he adds.

Traditionally, an Arab woman's dowry comprised ornate silver jewellery, but modern brides favour gold jewellery and cash. Rising gold prices have only increased young bachelors' financial worries.

Therefore, far from basking in newly wedded bliss, the early years of marriage see young husbands struggling to save up to two-thirds of their income to repay their loans.

Faced by these staggering expenses, many young locals find it simpler to marry foreigners, who are free from local social customs, and live a life unburdened by financial debt.

Some young Emirati women also say they are open to marrying foreigners and increasingly reluctant to marry local men - for different reasons. While government and officials and men focus on the costs of weddings, they say they find local men conservative and think that foreigners make more considerate husbands.

Naureen Al Fahidi, a student at the American University in the emirate of Sharjah, argues, ''I would rather never marry at all than marry a man who expects me to lead the same kind of life as my mother. Most of my friends feel the same way and say they want to marry a foreigner.''

''They are also clear that they do not want to be second wives. They will only accept being the first, and only, wife,'' she points out. But officials like Jamal Obaid Al Bah, assistant undersecretary in the labour and social affairs ministry, says that there are ''negative
repercussions'', including the risk of population imbalance, if local women decide to remain single.

That is an argument that Al Fahidi rejects. ''Calling this negative repercussions is just one point of view. On our part, sometimes we feel remaining unmarried is better than marrying someone whom we are uncomfortable with.''

''It is still rare for an Arab woman to reject marriage and motherhood outright but many believe that their domestic responsibilities are perfectly compatible with a stimulating professional career,'' she adds.Al Bah adds however that there have been cases of foreigners marrying
local men to get citizenship. Afterwards, he says, they seek divorce and under Islamic practice, are entitled to an allowance afterwards. ''Many see this as a way out,'' he says.

To encourage marriages among locals, the UAE set up in 1992 a marriage fund that extends assistance of about 20,000 U.S. dollars to help young men of moderate means marry local women. The fund also offers housing and furnishing assistance.

Since its establishment, the fund has granted around 2 million dollars to around 30,000 men.

The government has also been promoting mass marriages, where the couples receive money and jewellery from the UAE's rulers. In 1998, the country introduced a new marriage law that restricted dowries to less than 10,000 dollars.

Says Jamal, who is also the Marriage Fund's director-general, ''Families will be fined up to 135,000 dollars if they stage lavish weddings that defy the new austerity specifications that the government has laid down. Also brides' parents have been ordered to curb their dowry demands.''

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