In the Gulf, marriage falters while divorce prospers

Justin Thomas examines some worrying demographic trends concerning relationships.

More and more marriages in the Gulf are failing.  iStock
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The UAE is experiencing marriage problems, as are our Gulf neighbours. Reports from across the region suggest rising rates of spinsterhood, known as anousa in Arabic. They also speak of high divorce rates, and the popular reintroduction and abuse of lesser-known forms of marriage, such as, zawaaj al-misyar (the traveller’s marriage). But what is the true extent of these problems? How widespread are they? And what can or should be done?

One problem with the alarmist reports of mass spinsterhood, is that they seldom provide an adequate definition of the term. Exactly how old do you have to be to qualify for this pejorative label? Similarly, these reports don’t say too much about the methods used to compile the numbers. In the absence of any talk about methodology, I suspect the numbers are wildly speculative.

One source reported data suggesting that a quarter of all Qatari women will remain unmarried. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia too, equally high figures are bandied around: 1.5 million Saudi women and 175,000 Emiratis will remain spinsters.

Today though, even if you get married, staying married also seems difficult. A report in 2014 to the Federal National Council suggested that the divorce rate for 2013 surged to 70 per cent. Similarly, data published by Qatar’s Permanent Population Committee in 2009, suggested that around 70 per cent of Qatari marriages end in divorce too.

More disconcerting still – when you crunch the divorce rate numbers and look only at those between the ages of 20 and 29 – then the divorce rate shoots up even further. Among these younger couples the data also suggest a worrying trend for divorcing fairly soon after marriage, typically within the first year. Unlike the speculation concerning spinsterhood, the divorce data is fairly reliable. Furthermore, the data looking at Gulf divorce trends across time confirm a clear upwards trajectory, in other words: things haven’t always been this bad.

But what can be done? There have already been many initiatives aimed at promoting marriages and reversing these troubling trends. Obvious examples include marriage grants, group weddings, dowry-caps and even divorce penalties. One initiative, particularly, but not exclusively, associated with Saudi Arabia, was the re-popularisation of zawaaj al-misyar, often translated as the traveller’s or visitor’s marriage.

Historically, this morally contested practice was associated with the region’s merchants; traders who needed to travel extensively and perhaps couldn’t afford to maintain wives at different locations on their long routes. The misyar marriage is founded on the understanding that, beyond providing the initial mahr (bride gift), the husband has no financial obligations towards his misyar wife. He needn’t provide accommodation, living allowance or alimony, and he can choose not to cohabit. Misyar brides will often remain in the parental home, with peripatetic husbands visiting at will.

Critics of the practice have viewed it as a kind of legally sanctioned prostitution.

Others object on the ground that it gives men all the rights, but none of the responsibilities of marriage. Some have even suggested that the availability of misyar gives rise to twisted attitudes towards marriage, characterised by the old saying: why buy the book, when you can go to the library instead.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of websites offering misyar brokerage services, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Some feel this has led to an increase in misyar marriages, along with widespread abuse of the practice. Once proposed as a solution, misyar has, for some, become an opportunity for exploitation, further undermining conventional marriage.

I’m not sure what the solution is for the Gulf’s marriage problems, or if these are even issues that can be solved. However, great care is needed to ensure that our remedial initiatives don’t actually exacerbate the situation or introduce new problems. Sometimes, the imagined panacea only worsens the plague.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas