Recently, the UAE Federal National Council (FNC) expressed its concern over the marriage of Emiratis to foreigners and suggested establishing a series of studies, highlighting the pitfalls of such unions.

The reason? According to the official news agency WAM, FNC members ‘are concerned that such unions are undermining the demographic balance of the UAE.’

The news item went on to quote Dr Maitha Al Shamsi, head of department disbursing the UAE’s Marriage Fund, who said: “There is no specific definition of spinstership and there are no statistics in the UAE about this phenomenon. It is a relative issue about age of marriage … there is no social agency that keeps indicators or figures through which we can tailor solutions to this problem.”

Apparently, the rising number of Emiratis marrying expatriates is what triggered this item to be on the agenda of the FNC’s meeting. While Dr Maitha claimed there were no reliable statistics and no official agency to monitor and record such trends, she added it was still cause for concern that such marriages could lead to the rise of spinsterhood in the country.

This is in spite of the fact that the government is very generous when it comes to assisting nationals in matters of matrimony. Almost all of the Marriage Fund’s finances is through government allocation from its national budget and there is enough money in the coffers to support the nuptial cause.

“The fund has enough financial resources to support low-income beneficiaries,” she said, noting that the government had allocated Dh204 million this year and an additional Dh3 million had come in the form of private contributions.

Recently, the Marriage Fund had spent Dh15.52 million to help 426 Emiratis in matrimony. It was also the second time this year that the Marriage Fund provided grants of up to Dh70,000 to Emirati couples.

It has also embarked on an extensive campaign to ‘educate parents and youth about the negative effects of high-cost weddings’, believing that there exists a solid connection between ‘abundant expenses of weddings and delays in getting married.’ There is also the presumption that high costs associated with a wedding drive some UAE nationals to seek less financially demanding unions with foreigners.

Such was the case in Saudi Arabia for many years. While instances of Saudi women marrying foreigners was unheard of, marriage of Saudi men to foreign women was on the rise until the government stepped in and formulated a series of checks through legislative acts. The laws in the Kingdom attempt to vet those not considered suitable for such a liaison if their salaries or background checks showed reasons for concern.

Saudi marriage demands were skyrocketing with dowries and expenses well beyond the means of many. It was not uncommon for the relatives of the prospective bride to ask for and get riches well beyond the capabilities of the bridegroom. Reacting to such financially oppressive demands, Saudis began looking beyond their borders.

Although a majority of the foreign wives were predominantly from neighbouring Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and were Muslims, there were conflicts of culture in such relationships. There had been reports of families of the groom refusing to accept the bride into the family or being indifferent towards her presence. Away from home and family, and devoid of childhood friends, the foreign bride found herself all alone. Coupled with the confining laws against freedom for women on the roads or in the business world, countless foreign women simply folded against such alien concepts.

Then there was the quandary of child custody when such marriages failed. While Saudi laws applied to the children while on Saudi soil, such was not the case when the children and the mother were in the country of her birth. Bitter quarrels and fights often ensued with the children as hapless onlookers. The large number of foreign wives who deserted Saudi Arabia also created diplomatic issues with the countries concerned.

However, unlike the UAE, where apprehension over changing demographics may have been the reason behind the recent alert, the Saudi population is large enough to absorb the small percentage of marriages between nationals and foreigners. In the UAE, the rising trend of such unions is feared by some to lead to a dissolution of national culture and identity.

There are some who say that such apprehensions should not be an obstacle to matters of the heart. As one national puts it: “No government in any county should have anything to do with the love between a man and a woman. A happy marriage should be celebrated by all and blessed by what ever your faith may be. What the world needs now is love and more love.”

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.