Love is the tender trap in Oman

Omani men are taking out crippling bank loans to finance weddings they cannot afford while others marry foreigners.

OMAN, OCTOBER 1, 2009: Mother of the groom handing over the dowry to the bride's family in a special ceremony. Ali Saleh for The National
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MUSCAT // It should be the happiest day of their lives but for many young Omani couples the custom of paying exorbitant dowries is placing their marriages under huge financial strain and leading to a growing number of unmarried women. Across the Gulf, bride's families receive money from the groom's family, but in Oman the dowry sums can be as high as 10,000 rials (Dh96,000) in cash. The brides also expect to receive expensive jewellery that costs thousands more and, in most instances, a lavish ceremony that lasts several days.

"It is not right. It is time we break this bad habit because it works out negatively in our society," said Fatma Fallahy, a 74-year-old marriage counsellor. "It is just pure greed that has got nothing to do with our tradition or religion. It also ruins the prospective marriages of many young people." One Omani man said that it cost him nearly 20,000 rials to marry his college sweetheart, money that would have moved them out of a rented accommodation and helped pay for their own house.

"By the time I paid the dowry, the five-star hotel's reception cost, traditional ceremonies and gifts, I ... used up almost all my savings," said Rashid al Habsi, a computer software engineer. "The message from my father-in-law at the time was: 'you want her, then you pay for her', but the money ended our dreams of owning a house for many years to come." Some men take crippling loans from banks to finance marriages they cannot afford so they can be with the women they love. More well-off families tend to help the grooms with the payments. In extreme cases, such marriages end in matrimonial disaster.

"My brother's marriage ended just a year and a half later from both the financial constraint of running a family and blaming his father-in-law for putting them in a dire condition," Mr al Habsi added. Matchmakers, who are still used by most Omanis, say some men avoid marrying their compatriots, preferring low-cost weddings with foreign women. "It is getting popular and the number is growing," said Rahila Saif, a Muscat-based matchmaker. "They get married to Indian, Pakistani, Filipino and European women, and who can blame them? They get a fair bargain while our women struggle with local suitors."

The number of unmarried women in Oman is growing. Although the government does not keep statistics, thirty years ago the age of marriage for women was between 18 and 22. Now, Mrs Saif said, women in their mid thirties are still looking for husbands. The potential bride's father usually sets the dowry fee when he wants to finance an expensive purchase or simply boost his bank balance, turning daughters into costly commodities. In villages, the most common purchase with dowry money is a farm, and in cities a property that can provide an income from rent.

"In some cases I know, fathers of the brides even buy bonds or invest the money in shares, things as ridiculous as that," said Nasser al Khaboori, a Muscat-based investment banker. "They don't really care that while they enrich themselves, they give their daughters and sons-in-laws a bad start to their marriage by cutting down their financial resources." Some women know nothing about their future husbands and are forced to marry by fathers eager to cash in.

Such marriages, which are usually practised in villages, involve much older men giving marriage proposals to the father, who chooses a groom for his daughter from the highest bidder. "[It is] just like a goat auction. These men treat their daughters as livestock rather than humans," Mr Khaboori said. Fathers who demand huge dowries defend themselves by claiming the payment is their right. "I have spent thousands for the upkeep of my children and I need a little compensation." said Hamdani al Mansoori, a 66-year-old retired civil servant who married off three daughters at an average dowry of 4,500 rials each. "Besides, who says marriages are cheap? A man looking for a wife needs to prove his financial standing before making a proposal," he said.

Mr Mansoori, who lives in Muscat, said he used the money to help buy a property from which the rent augments his pension.