More Emiratis are marrying foreigners to 'save money'

Dowry requests from brides' families - running as high as Dh800,000 - are among the reasons cited for the trend.

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DUBAI // Emiratis are increasingly choosing to marry foreigners, new statistics show. The data from the Dubai Statistics Centre reveal that from 2007 through 2009, the number of marriages between Emiratis and foreigners rose 10 per cent to 539, while the number of marriages between two Emiratis dipped two per cent to 1,178. The figures, which are for Dubai only, are based on the annual report from Dubai Courts.

Social experts have attributed the trend, which started in the 1980s, to the large dowries demanded by Emirati women. Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, limited the official maximum dowry to Dh20,000 - but it can go as high as Dh800,000 in unofficial family agreements. "A lot of people in the UAE complain that families of the Emirati woman demand a large amount of dowry and a wedding in an expensive hotel," said Fawzya Taresh Rabee, the director of family development at the Ministry of Social Affairs. "So they end up opting for the foreigner."

Marrying an expatriate is believed to cost Emirati men a quarter of what they would spend on the dowry of an Emirati bride. However, they might not be banking on hidden costs that can accompany non-Emirati brides, Ms Rabee said. Those include bringing family to the Emirates and travelling back and forth to the woman's country of origin. "When the Emirati marries a local female, she will cost him a large amount of [money] and not just the amount recorded in the contract," said Abdelaziz al Hammadi, a Dubai Courts family counsellor. "So when we talk about the increase of expenses in marriage to [Emiratis], some of the youth perception is, 'I'll marry someone from the outside because the whole procedure will only cost me Dh10,000'."

The Marriage Fund has taken steps to encourage unions between nationals. "The strategic objectives of setting up the fund are to increase awareness of the composition of a healthy family and work to achieve stability in the community," said Habiba Mohammed, the fund's manager of guidance and family counselling. To encourage Emirati intermarriage, the fund can provide a grant to offset wedding costs, and it has also arranged affordable mass weddings.

UAE society has often viewed marriages between nationals and most foreigners as unusual and unacceptable. Still, the trend of nationals marrying foreigners is less likely to be seen as negative when it increases the Emirati population of the UAE, as nationals are in the minority. "The overall perception is that people reject it rather than accept it," Ms Rabee said. "Others look at it in a way that the number of the Emirati population is little, so why not increase the number of population through the right choice of marriage?"

Ms Rabee noted that marrying an Asian tends to be seen in a dim light while tying the knot with a woman from the Gulf region is better tolerated because of the similarity in cultural backgrounds. Still, mixed-nationality marriages do not generate many more divorces than unions between Emiratis. The statistics centre found that the divorce rate among Emiratis and non-Emiratis was 21 per cent, comparable to the 18 per cent among Emirati couples.

But if divorce does happen, it can be especially harrowing when one spouse calls another country home. Yasser Habeeb, an Emirati composer, went through an ordeal that lasted more than a decade to get his two children back after their Austrian mother took them to her homeland, claiming she was going to her sister's wedding. "After 13 years of fighting and keeping after the Austrian government and the kids, I finally got them two years and a half ago," he said. "Psychologically it destroyed me. I was lost for years and couldn't work and spent a lot of money from the bank. I was about to go to jail because of the debt."

Such a situation can compromise the social development of children from a mixed marriage, especially if they were not brought up in the right environment, said Nasser al Harbi, a psychologist at Dubai's Al Amal Hospital. "The child's personality development heavily depends on the way he was brought up, regardless of his parents' nationality," he said. "If he was brought up in a stable family, a safe environment and in a proper upbringing method in which his personal and social needs are met, it helps develop his personality. The opposite is also true."