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Thursday, 16 December, 1999, 16:37 GMT
Why Emirati weddings are getting less lavish
By Meriel Beattie
Lavish as such a display might seem to outsiders, to Emiratis it's a symbol of a new spirit of economy.
Usually Emirati weddings are private but opulent affairs, with as many as 1,000 guests, expensive light shows and fabulous, fairytale outfits for the bride. The bill for all this, which falls to the bridegroom to pay, can come to tens of thousands of pounds -- often forcing the young couple to begin their married life in debt.
"If I got married by myself I'd have needed 200,000 Dirhams (£33,000)" Mohammed says, as he shows his official quota of just 10 guests around the mass wedding party. "But with this kind of wedding here I just spend around 70,000 -- which the government has given to me."
High spending has been a way of life in the United Arab Emirates ever since the federation of seven desert states struck it rich with oil in the 1970s.
For Emiratis, though, flaunting your wealth is a hard habit to break. "The overspending is comes from the household sector, " says economist Abdullah Sharafi. "It's 'Keeping up with the Joneses'. I look at my neighbours, and because they have it, I want it. I don't know if people will come to their senses. Perhaps this has gone too far."
Although economic statistics are a closely guarded secret in the UAE, there are indications that the government realises it is time to assist its people with some basic housekeeping values.
Such is the importance of keeping up appearances in the UAE that many grooms will go into debt to pay for all this, rather than lose face before their bride's family. Recently as many as 80 per cent of all personal loans being taken out by Emirati men were being used to cover wedding expenses.
But perhaps more worrying to the government than the expense is the fact that many Emirati men have been so daunted by the massive cost of marrying an Emirati girl -- that they've gone for the cheaper option of a less demanding foreign bride.
Among the local Emirati population, these mixed marriages are now seen as a worrying dilution of a group which is already a minority in their own country. Emirati nationals are outnumbered four to one by foreign workers -- and there's now a new drive to protect the identity and the culture of the local population.
Which is where the Marriage Fund comes in. Its main function is to give one-off gifts of £12,000 to help bridegrooms pay for their weddings. But there's a catch. The bride must be an Emirati girl, not a foreigner. Each groom must have a fertility check and an AIDS test. So far -- since 1992, the Fund has helped to marry off 44,000 couples.
Handing out thousands of state money for wedding parties may seem a rather bizarre way to preach economy -- but Fund officials say they're delighted with their success.
"Our organisation cuts down on all these problems and helps to make people more modest with money. Before our organisation existed, 64% of marriages were mixed; now we've helped cut it down to 26%".
There are signs, too, that the message about economising is slowly sinking in.
Today's brides still want to be princess for a day, Mireille tells me -- but they're also becoming more conscious of value for money. "Because these dresses are very expensive, the girls often rent them out after their own marriages - sometimes up to three times! This is happening more and more these days. "
On the other side of the city, far removed from the dazzling white and glitter of Arushi's carpeted showrooms, a group of future Emirati brides sit drinking coffee in their traditional black ankle length gowns, or abayas. All students at the prestigious Dubai Women's College, the girls here are part of the new generation of Emirati women -- more pragmatic and more career-orientated than their mothers -- even though they still share the lurking fear of being left on the shelf.
"When my sister got married, it was very grand", Khadija, who's studying graphic design, tells us. "It was a traditional wedding and lasted three days. It was beautiful and made us very happy, but for me it was a waste of money. Today, when I ask her about it, she says 'I wish I'd saved the money to spend on my child and my house.'"
Maryam, a media studies student, nods in agreement. "I have a cousin who got married 11 years ago and he is still paying off the debts!"
Is marriage still important for you ? I ask. "Yes," says Maryam, "But not in the near future. I'd like to work - and if I got married I would feel restrained. I feel I should develop myself before I take it on."
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