Shaima al Habsi is 28, educated, and has a successful career in finance. She is also divorced, one of the many young Emiratis who have failed to beat the increasing odds against making marriage work. "The high divorce rate here is shocking, and there are different angles as to why it's so high," she said. "I think the fact that so many women are getting a higher education is one reason. The woman wants to achieve more, she wants more education, but the husband resists. So this creates tension and contributes to divorce."
Some say family friction is the most dangerous thing happening to Emirati society. With four out of 10 marriages failing, according to the Marriage Fund, the country has the highest rate of divorce in the Arab region, and arguably one of the highest in the world. A number of organisations hold heavily attended classes aimed at saving crumbling or difficult marriages, sponsored by organisations including the Women's Association in Dubai, the General Women's Union, as well as the Marriage Fund. Local colleges regularly hold lectures teaching soon-to-be graduates what to expect from marriage, while each week hours are spent on religious radio stations examining the hot topic of how marriages can be saved.
Sheikh Rashid al Mansori is an expert in Islamic family science and a director at Al Farha Academy in Dubai, which delivers lectures, seminars and counselling to couples and families. "Divorce spiralled out of control in the past several years," he said. "It's a disaster." He cited a study by Al Farha Academy that showed the number one cause of divorce in the UAE was marital infidelity from either side.
"I'm convinced if divorce rates in our society reach 50 per cent, then I think it will be irreversible and that will be the end of our society as we know it." There are many reasons why infidelity can emerge and marriages fail, with contributing factors appearing to include parental interference, the patriarchal nature of society and the changing role of women in Emirati society. Maha (who to protect her family's privacy did not use her real name) believes her marriage failed because her young husband could not live with her success.
"I made more money and he couldn't accept it, or the fact that I was getting promoted and loved my work," she said. Men also share the burden of divorce. As one expert puts it, the inherently patriarchal culture may put a greater stigma on the divorced woman than on the man, but a failed marriage is a stain on a man's record. Society identifies qualities such as leadership, rationality and the ability to rule and defuse conflict as masculine, and in the Islamic tradition this is what qualifies men to have the default right to initiate a divorce.
"Women feel the effects in the short term, right after they're divorced," said Sheikh al Mansori. "They become depressed and withdrawn and so on." "But for the men? It sneaks up on them in the long run. They feel like a failure, as if they are incompetent managers, or failed heads of household. And that takes a big toll on their sense of masculinity." The expectation put upon men to be the boss in a marriage often erodes it, according to Afraa al Hai, the director of Women's Association in Dubai.
She said she receives about 500 calls every month from nationals and expatriates inquiring about the association's counselling services. According to her, one of the highest contributing factors to divorce after infidelity is interference from family and friends. "They tell the husband, 'Oh come on, be the man. You're the boss. Don't let her step all over you. Divorce her.' " Mothers-in-law in particular can be problematic, especially when so many brides live with their husband and his family. And even when this is not the case, local culture holds high expectations for young couples to keep strong ties to the family. It is not unusual for a young couple to share a meal with the in-laws every day of the week if they live in the same town.
"Some mothers-in-law, they think of the new wife as the woman who stole their boy away," said Suzan al Ansi, 36 and unmarried. Younger couples are more likely to get divorced. Sheikh al Mansori attributes this to technology. "They all use computers now, and they learnt if you don't like something, they just press the delete button. It's the same for them in marriage. They press delete." But waiting for maturity to set in before tying the knot also seems to have its own set of problems, as does waiting for Mr Right.
"I think it's a waste of time, and wasteful for the young woman to wait. No one is perfect and there is no Mr Right," said Ms al Ansi. As for Ms al Habsi, remarrying is definitely an option, but only under certain conditions. She finds the older she gets, the more choosy she becomes and the slimmer are her chances. "I think the late age of getting married makes women less flexible, more independent and picky," said
"I know from myself, for example, the older I get the more demanding I become. And to be honest, even though I would like to remarry, I don't think I'll have the opportunity to do it. There is a reason that so many accomplished female leaders are divorced or never married." firstname.lastname@example.org