At 7.30am on October 21 last year, Reema and James Sperring were signing their marriage papers in Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court, with only the bride’s grandmother and father as witnesses.
“Even though I wanted to keep it low-key, they insisted on coming,” says Reema, 34, who had taken Thursday and Friday off work for a staycation at The Abu Dhabi Edition to mark the occasion.
On the day, the couple woke up early, got ready and took a taxi to the court. Reema was wearing white trousers, a smart blouse and Gucci trainers, while James, 36, donned blue chinos and a white shirt. “We were feeling both nervous and excited,” she says. “We met my family there and, once we were officially married, we went back to the hotel for breakfast.”
Later on, the now husband and wife had lunch at LPM Restaurant & Bar on Al Maryah Island, popped into Coya, then met up with James’s sister and brother-in-law for brunch the next day, followed by a Zoom session with his parents.
“I love how we celebrated,” Reema says. “At the end of the day, we wanted our day for ourselves without the pressure of a big, expensive wedding. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Nowadays, this is referred to as eloping, no longer a word reserved for those running away and getting wed without parental consent.
Today, it means a small or intimate destination wedding, and while it might not be a new concept, it’s a trend that’s rising not only in the UAE, but also around the world.
According to Google, global searches for “elopement” are now the highest on record, and it’s particularly popular among millennials. On Pinterest, 66 per cent of searches for “elopement ideas” over the past year are from people aged 25 to 34, 88 per cent of which are female.
Emma Pearson, a journalist and contributor to The National, was 33 when she and her husband got married barefoot on a riverbed in Sabi Sands, a South African nature reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park, with the reverend, game drivers and “a couple of giraffes that crashed” the wedding as its only guests. She was wearing a white jumpsuit she’d bought in Zara for Dh1,000.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of pouring myself into a massive poofy dress and prancing round a stately hall in front of a load of people I barely know or like,” she says. “I’ve been to so many weddings where the bride has been too stressed to have a good time, plus I hate being the centre of attention.
“Weddings are so expensive, and I would rather spend that money on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday to an incredible destination, which is what we did.”
And she says it’s one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“Afterwards, we went on a game drive and came across a pack of lions, who prowled past our safari jeep just inches away from us. That was a really special moment and a pretty decent start to married life.”
As they made their way back to the lodge they were staying in for the night, it started pouring with rain. “That’s meant to be a blessing in South African culture. It was a fitting end to a very memorable day, and I’ve never been happier to flaunt the drowned rat look,” says Pearson.
Not everyone does it entirely on their own, though. Take Graham Cassidy, 46, and his now wife Dearylen Secong-Cassidy, 40, who got married in Abu Dhabi’s civil court on a Friday morning dressed in a custom-made suit and full wedding dress, and then invited 35 people for a small reception in a private room at Home by McGettigan's in City Walk, Dubai.
“It was a joke of mine to the staff: ‘If I ever get married, I am having my wedding party here,'” says Graham.
“We were very lucky as the stars aligned. Family were going to be here on the day given to us [by Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court], their trip was planned before our wedding date, the venue was available, our favourite singer Shanice was available and the management of Home by McGettigan's were thrilled to host their first-ever wedding party.”
All in all, they spent about Dh40,000 for their “dream wedding”, he says, the most going on two Cartier wedding bands. They then splashed out Dh20,000 more on a trip to Georgia, where they’d planned to get married before they realised they could do it in Abu Dhabi.
“We still believe it was the right decision, and some guests who are residents in Dubai said our simple wedding was the best they have been to in the UAE.”
Mark Khawaja, creative director of wedding and event management company La Table Events in Dubai, says requests for this kind of wedding have “increased significantly” in the past year, particularly among western couples. He’s had to discover new and intimate venues all over the UAE for such small receptions, some of his favourites being Turtle Bay at Saadiyat Rotana Abu Dhabi, Ajman Saray hotel and Emirates Palace altar garden.
He says his clients, who tend to have about 20 guests, ask for “absolute privacy”.
“Even the wedding would have very light jazz-style entertainment just to create a subtle ambience and a single photographer. Some even request if he can try to be invisible,” says Khawaja.
While there are many reasons people choose to have a small wedding, the pressure of having the “perfect” ceremony is starting to put younger couples off, not to mention how much time the planning takes and the amount of money it costs.
In the UAE, the introduction of the Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court has had an impact, as it offers UAE residents the opportunity to sign papers without having to book a venue or travel. It has received more than 16,300 requests since the marriage law was introduced in 2021 and more than 6,000 couples have married there in the first six months of this year.
“I think the idea of having these elaborate, ‘social media-friendly’ weddings causes a lot of stress and pressure,” says Reema. “Well, that was the case with me.
“Plus, weddings are so expensive. We'd rather spend the money on a lifelong investment or some awesome holidays creating forever memories.”
Her husband, James, also believes finance is a big factor. “The cost of living has been going up, and I don’t think people are as interested in having a big wedding anymore.”
UAE resident Sally Menassa, who got married in 2021 with about 20 friends and family members in Cyprus, believes the pandemic has a lot to do with it. “I feel Covid set a standard that people are still following,” she says. “The average wedding size is going down and I believe this is cost-based.”
Pearson adds: “I think these days people are less inclined to do things to please other people. Typically, people are a bit older when they get married now compared to our parents' generation and know their own minds a bit better.
“Also, people are more financially savvy these days. Who wants to pay for a four-course meal for your second-cousin’s wife’s sister who is probably going to complain about the food, anyway?”
Khawaja says no couple should feel like they must have a “grand show” because of cultural norms. “Everyone should have the exact wedding they are comfortable having, since, in the end, it is all about the memory, and it should remain a beautiful one for the couple.”
Pearson agrees. “I am not against tradition. I love a good wedding, and if it’s what a couple wants, then I think that’s amazing, but it wasn’t for me.
“I think couples should do whatever they want to do. You’re only going to do it once – hopefully, anyway.”