Emirati weddings: the complete insider guide

From lavish celebrations to more intimate affairs, the Emirati wedding can encompass it all

Dubai, UAE

From lavish celebrations with hundreds of guests to more intimate affairs, the Emirati wedding can encompass it all.

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 seemingly no expense spared. Yet Emiratis always find a way to intertwine elaborate, modern-day 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 )

In early June, 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.

Vast crowds gathered outside the venue before the bride’s ceremony, which tend to last about three to four hours.

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 )

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.

Usually, a dowry, where the husband agrees to give a set sum to his new wife, is part of the contract.

Rayana Hamadeh, 22, who has been to more than 50 Emirati weddings, told The National that a dowry might be about Dh5,000. By law, it cannot exceed 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 a number of elaborate gifts or a single sum of money known as an 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 even 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,” said Ms Hamadeh. “This is called Miksar.”

The gifts are usually shown off at the father of the bride’s house, 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 itself than the ceremony as a whole.

Dubai, 8th April 2009.  Ahmed Al Reyaysa the first Emirati wedding designer at The Bride Show, held at Dubai International Exhibition Centre.  (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)  Editor's Note; Tahira Y reports. *** Local Caption ***  JB05-Bride.jpg

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,” said Ms Hamadeh.

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 only allowed to join his bride’s celebration 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)

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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 was 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 at the ladies’ celebration is allowed, although close friends do often take pictures on the understanding they are not shared publicly.

The food

Contrary to the 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.

“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,” said Ms Hamadeh.

“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.”