A proposal for the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme to extend housing grants and loans to men who take second wives could have unintended consequences, sociology and law experts say.
The proposal is one of 16 being drafted by the Federal National Council following a discussion in a February session with the Minister of Infrastructure Development, Dr Abdullah Al Nuaimi.
The issue was raised by Hamad Al Rahoomi, the second-term member from Dubai who asked the minister about providing a housing allowance for Emiratis who wish to take a second wife. “The recommendations also include providing assistance to first marriages,” said Mr Al Rahoomi earlier this week. “Our concern is family well-being and stability.”
Expensive weddings and high dowries mean men often marry foreign women as second wives. A 2017 documentary by Zayed University researchers estimated that on average an Emirati wedding costs at least Dh683,000.
Financial support would make it more affordable for men to marry Emirati women, thereby reducing the number of unmarried Emirati women and increasing stability for families suffering financial pressure, said Mr Al Rahoomi.
“He will marry a second wife anyway, so why not help him maintain a stable household by providing accommodation if he marries an Emirati woman?” said Mr Al Rahoomi following the session. “When he sees that he will have to pay for a new house if he will marry an expat woman and that the Government will support him if he marries an Emirati woman, then he will chose to marry an Emirati.”
Mr Al Nuaimi said the Ministry has already considered treating a housing request for a second marriage the same as a request for a first.
"If we are able to facilitate more Emirati men to marry Emirati women, this is a success,” said Mr Al Rahoomi. "I am not encouraging men to remarry. The point is to provide factors that will make a marriage between two nationals successful.”
"We fell in love"
Wives living in the same house creates problems, Mr Al Rahoomi said. “Our concern is the well being of the extended family, and not that the man marries more than woman,” he said.
Emirati "Shamma" agreed to become a second wife but says it has been a struggle since her wedding 10 years ago.
"I agreed to marry him because we fell in love and he told me that he had a difficult relationship with his first wife and was considering divorce," Shamma said.
Her husband did not divorce his first wife and mother of his four children.
"There are many things that I want but the one most important thing is a house," she said. "Having a house is the most important thing for any family as it provides us with stability and security. Being the second wife and a mother of three, we have been living in a rented house for the past 10 years. It is a difficult situation and I feel the government should provide for those in my situation with support."
Polygamy in the Emirates is widely believed to solve perceived problems such as ‘spinsterhood’ and population decline. It is often justified by the misconception that there is a gender imbalance where women outnumber men.
The numbers tell a different story. The Emirati population in Abu Dhabi has an annual growth rate of 3.9 per cent in Abu Dhabi, according to the Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi (SCAD).
In the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Emirati men outnumber Emirati women, with a ratio of 1.05 men to every woman, according to the 2016 mid-year SCAD estimates.
Rather than foster social stability, academics have warned that the proposal could have the opposite effect.
"I think if the Government moves forward with this, there could be some serious unintended consequences to this policy, including a rise in divorce amongst the senior wives," said Dr Nicole Bromfield, a former associate professor in at UAE University's department of social work who researched marriage and divorce in the Emirates.
'Why should I marry an Emirati woman?'
A 2005 study by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs reported polygamy as the main cause in a third of divorce cases.
The study noted that most of the men were in their 60s and marrying second wives in their twenties.
Men are not legally obliged to tell their first wives they plan to remarry. In a 2005 study by Mariam Al Shamsi and Leon Fulcher, 22 of 25 first wives who were interviewed were unaware that their husband planned to remarry.
A third of the women found out their husband had remarried when they saw their husband with a second wife, while half learned from friends or family. The study reported that 12 per cent of women became sick upon hearing the news.
Mothers said that most children experienced psychological effects that impacted their education, social behaviour and self-esteem.
“Fairness between wives and families was frequently open to question,” the study concluded.
“More worrying was the small amount of time fathers in polygamous families spent with their children. Society and those around the first wife expected her to be patient and not seek professional counselling.”
The proposal fails to address core issues like high dowries and financial pressure, said Dr Bromfield.
“In casual conversations, some of the male respondents were like, ‘why should I marry an Emirati woman because I can find a beautiful woman from Morocco who's not going to have the same demands?’ She’s not going to want the Dh700,000 wedding.”
She proposed other strategies that tackled the core issue, including limiting financial support provided to couples from mixed marriages, capping wedding expenses or giving more support to Emirati women who want to marry foreign men.
“The issue is who the men are marrying,” said Dr Bromfield, who now works in the Graduate College of Social Work as associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Houston.
“If the government really wants to prevent so-called spinsterhood among Emirati women, they either need to have some rules against Emirati men marrying foreign women, like, for example, not providing them financial support, or open it up for Emirati women to have the same right to marry a Muslim man from a different country.
“It’s very difficult for Emirati women to marry men from other countries because of the constraints. They don’t get the financial support, their kids don’t get citizenship until they turn 18. So why not open that up for women?
“I understand that a lot of the families would not be okay with that. But some might.”
The policy could lead to more stability
Naser Al Hammadi, a lawyer from Abu Dhabi who specialises in divorce and marriage, agreed that the policy could lead to more stability in the home. He noted that while first wives are usually well provided for in their own villas, second wives often live in flats and this leads to pressure and jealousy in the family.
“Many people are talking about this idea,” he said. “I have so many cases where the second wife says, ‘I don’t have a home’ and the husband has only given a house to the first wife. It’s a good idea for the government to give a second home.”
Even if the second wife is not originally Emirati, her children will be and she will remain in the Emirates after her husband’s death, noted Mr Al Hammadi. Second wives are typically much younger than their husbands and outlive them.
“If this the husband dies, where will the wife go? Some wives have been here 50 years.”
“My advice is that the husband expect only one wife. In the last 10 years, I see people have had problems with work and time management. If you work from eight till four o’clock, what time do you have for a second wife?”
Dr Bromfield also suggested capping wedding costs.
Founding Father Sheikh Zayed encouraged people to keep weddings modest, said Obaid Al Kaabi, a lawyer from Abu Dhabi.
“Sheikh Zayed flipped the table by saying spending millions on the wedding in one night does not bring social prestige. He made an example and he showed that he is happy to attend a modest wedding. His attendance became more valuable than the millions people spend on fireworks and wasted food.”
This example was followed by other sheikhs, who attend mass weddings ceremonies for men.
It is expected that men will only marry a second wife when they are able to support her financially. The 2005 Ministry of Labour study attributed a rise in marriages to foreign women to the financial boom.
“My wife got scared when I got some money. I told her that remarriage is not for me,” said Mr Al Kaabi. “But normally people who have more financial capability consider enjoyment. They consider the luxuries of life.”