What happens at an Emirati wedding? A guide to local traditions

Emirati weddings can range from enormous, lavish celebrations to quiet, more intimate affairs

Dubai, UAE
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From lavish celebrations with hundreds of guests to more intimate affairs, an Emirati wedding is an event to be remembered.

But for many people from outside the UAE, the ceremony, with all its traditions and nuances, remains something of a mystery.

Like any significant celebration, the luxury or exuberance of weddings in the Emirates can vary according to personal taste or wealth.

Often they are grand, imposing affairs with no expense spared. Yet Emiratis always find a way to intertwine elaborate, modern trends with more traditional festivities.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -  February 21, 2018: HH Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mu'alla, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Umm Al Quwain (L), attends the wedding of Abdullah Saeed bin Omeir Al Mehairi (R), who is marrying the daughter of HE Jaber Al Suwaidi, General Director of the Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi (not shown). Seen at Emirates Palace.
( Ryan Carter for the Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi )
Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla, Ruler of Umm Al Quwain, left, attends the wedding of Abdullah Saeed bin Omeir Al Mehairi at Emirtaes Palace in 2018. Photo: Crown Prince Court Abu Dhabi

In June 2019, a huge celebration was held in Dubai World Trade Centre to celebrate the marriages of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, and his brothers to their respective brides.

The bride’s ceremony tends to last about three to four hours, while the male wedding celebration, which is always separate from the women’s, is a far simpler, more low-key affair.

Sometimes grooms choose not to have a ceremony at all.

The contract

So how does it all start? First, the mothers of the bride and groom discuss a potential engagement and arrange a meeting for the couple.

At this meeting, the bride generally wears light makeup or none at all and can remove her niqab if she wears one.

After this first meeting, and if the couple like each other, they can proceed with the legal marriage contract.

United Arab Emirates - Al Ain  - Jun 06 - 2010:  The dinner at the UAE's largest mass wedding with 402 people getting married  in Al Ain Convention Center. ( Jaime Puebla / The National )
Nobody goes home hungry from a Gulf wedding. Jaime Puebla / The National

In Islamic culture, the marriage officially begins when the contract is signed by the bride and groom in the presence of two male witnesses. It is at this point that the couple usually exchange rings at a small ceremony, called a milcha.

The contract is often signed either at the house of the bride’s father or at a local court.

A dowry, where the husband agrees to give an agreed sum to his new wife, is usually part of the contract.

Rayana Hamadeh, who has been to more than 50 Emirati weddings, told The National in 2019 that a dowry might be about Dh5,000 ($1,361). By law, it cannot be more than Dh20,000 and it could be as low as Dh1.

Today, many Emirati couples tend to be in their mid to late twenties when they get married. The bride and groom each receives a copy of the contract.

The costumes and gifts

As the bride prepares for her wedding day, the groom and his family are expected to present her with elaborate gifts or a single sum of money known as Al Zahba. The gifts usually include silk, jewellery and expensive perfume.

“Al Zahba can cost more than Dh80,000, but in some families it could reach up to Dh2 million and more,” Ms Hamadeh said. The sum varies according to the groom’s financial circumstances.

“Before the marriage, the bride displays all the purchases from Al Zahba,” Ms Hamadeh said. “This is called miksar.”

The gifts are usually shown off at the home of the father of the bride during the wedding contract ceremony.

As in many other countries, the bride’s dress is the most important statement in every Arab wedding.

In some marriages, the bride will spend more on the dress than on the ceremony as a whole.

Although the common western style of a long, white gown also applies to Middle East weddings, the bride’s dress is even more of a focus in the UAE.

“The gown [in the UAE] is usually full of bling and shine, and is massive in length and size. The bride must be the best dressed in this celebration,” Ms Hamadeh said.

The groom, who in Emirati tradition may have a completely separate wedding celebration away from the women, is usually dressed in a white kandoora that is covered with a traditional black cloak known as a bisht. The bisht often has gold trimmings.

He is allowed to join his bride’s celebration only for a short while, with a change of music signalling to the women to cover their hair and shoulders with their shaylas prior to his entrance.

Some women may also choose to cover their dresses with abayas.

The henna

Few Emirati weddings would be complete without a henna party for the bride and her female friends.

The reddish-brown dye used to decorate the hands and feet is usually considered a must before the big day. But some brides choose to paint their henna themselves, without the help of friends or family members.

Azra’s grandmother, Amina, hands adroned with henna.

Azra Khamissa is a Dubai based Canadian/South-African chiropractor, fashion designer, and henna artist. (Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Section: AC
A woman in Dubai with her hands decorated with henna. Reem Mohammed / The National

Rachna Chadha, the chief executive of Baqaa Glamour Weddings & Events, said the majority of Emirati weddings were “big and elegant”.

“Local wedding celebrations are beautiful to conceptualise and execute,” she said.

“Generally, every henna [party] we [have] planned is very different. Emiratis come to us because we love playing with colours and we infuse a lot of Indian vibrancy into the Middle Eastern atmosphere.”

Typically, no photography is allowed at the women's celebration, although close friends do often take pictures on the understanding they are not shared publicly.

The food

Contrary to public belief, not all Emirati weddings are ridiculously expensive.

The extravagance or otherwise of a local ceremony differs enormously from one family to another.

A lot of the expense goes on catering. Traditional Emirati food is usually served and includes coffee, dates and a variety of other delicious sweets.

Other dishes served are likely to be biryani, a dish of highly seasoned rice with meat, fish or vegetables, and salona, a traditional stew in Gulf countries.

Dates, coffee and juices. Photo: Dusit Thani
Dates, coffee and juices. Photo: Dusit Thani

“My favourite part of the wedding is when they serve luqaimat, which are fried balls of dough covered in syrup, along with traditional coffee and tea,” Ms Hamadeh said.

“Not all Emirati weddings are luxurious but even the simpler ones spend a lot on the food because it has to be traditional.

“It’s considered shaming if there’s not enough food to serve the entire wedding, which is usually packed with guests.”