Reaching out: Fiona Cameron and Anne Prince, both Dubai-based teachers, started the group after they found many expats groping for direction when their marriages fell apart in the UAE Image Credit: Zarina Fernandes/XPRESS

Dubai: Two British expats, one divorced and the other separated, have started an unlikely group called Leaves Dubai to help people deal with the trauma of broken marriages, which they claim are on the rise in the UAE.

Fiona Cameron, 46, and Anne Prince, 44, both Dubai-based teachers, said they started the informal group after they found many expats, away from their homes, groping for direction and support when their marriages fell apart in the UAE.

“From going through the initial shock of rejection to more practical issues of managing finances, coping with children and making sense of the law, the challenges of dealing with a broken marriage in the UAE can be daunting. You can go round in circles trying to find the right answers,” said Prince, noting she went through an “emotional nightmare” when her husband of 23 years wanted to leave her for another woman he met in Dubai last year.

She said one in three marriages break up worldwide and the UAE is perhaps no exception. The reasons for divorce here range from lack of full family responsibility, more avenues for socialising through work or otherwise, the ability to remain anonymous and the pressure to keep up with an image of being well to do.

Surprised and shattered by her husband’s rejection, Prince said the veritable maze she suddenly found herself in as she tried to figure out the best way forward for herself and her two children set her thinking. “I had been so blind. I began to seek advice from the British Embassy and from lawyers and from anyone who would listen to me. Funnily enough, I began to meet other women who were going through similar scenarios. Some supported me and some I gave support and advice to. That’s when I realised that we should all be talking to each other to give each other strength. At the same time, I began to talk to Fiona who also had a similar idea and so Leaves Dubai took off last June.”

Two stories

Unlike Prince, who is estranged from her husband but still receives financial assistance from him, Cameron said she had nothing to do with her husband whom she divorced last year.

“In spite of having three children, my ex-husband and I no longer planned activities together as a family. He spent more time away from home, socialising with friends. As the situation got progressively worse, I suggested we end the marriage. He wasn’t happy and told me he had placed a travel ban on the children preventing them from leaving the UAE. As an expat woman in Dubai I felt very vulnerable,” said Cameron.

Deciding to consult a lawyer, she said: “The lawyer advised me that if the marriage breakdown was not amicable, I would be in a precarious situation and that my husband could indeed ban the children from travelling and keep them with him until we were divorced as the UAE does not recognise a ‘separation’. I phoned the British Embassy which said they could not get involved with the legalities of child custody and travel bans. I felt alone, worried and frightened that I could be separated from my children. I couldn’t believe that the lovely gentleman I had met in Dubai and had married 10 years ago was now using the UAE law to his advantage.”

Divorce cases in the UAE are governed by Islamic Sharia law. Under Sharia it is difficult for an estranged couple to separate, unless the judge is fully convinced that the marriage will not work. Couples have to first register a case at the Moral and Family Guidance Section at the courts, following which a counsellor will meet them for a discussion. If the couple, or either of them, still insists on divorce, the papers will be forwarded to the court. But non-Muslims are also allowed to ask for the laws of their home countries to be applied.

Choosing to pursue the second option, Cameron said she left the country with her three kids within 24 hours of meeting the lawyer.

“We stayed in the UK for six months whilst I sorted out my divorce, the custody of the children, the finances and my job. My company was sympathetic and also willing to support me in my move back to Dubai as a single mum with three children. I was able to secure my legal custody of the children in Dubai.”

She said she owned two houses and bank accounts jointly with her husband, besides a car loan, and sorting them out was tough.

Cameron said: “Once I returned to Dubai, I was surprised by the women who approached me with their stories of unhappy marriages, financial insecurities and uncertain futures; women who felt lonely in their circumstances. I knew those feelings and setting up Leaves was all about not having to do any of it on your own.”

Not surprisingly, several expats are finding comfort in the group.

Elise Maxwell, a 45-year-old Western expat with three teenage children, said: “After 25 years, my husband suddenly wants me out of his house and visa. I couldn’t come to terms with it and had many questions: how could he do that to me? What do I do – go in for a divorce or separation? Which lawyer do I consult? What about the kids? And so on. But Leaves Dubai is helping me connect the dots and realise there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

According to Leaves Dubai, the challenges of an estrangement in the UAE are unique as it often boils down to survival.

Issues like sponsorships and visas immediately come into play, besides the financial pressure. As a result, many women have to pack their bags and leave the country.

There’s also a woeful lack of understanding about the law, especially where children are involved. “The same lawyer can tell different things to different people or people can get different opinions from different lawyers. The feeling of loneliness in a foreign land also makes you vulnerable. It’s a nightmare if you want to date again and people hesitate to talk as you never know what’s right or who knows whom.”

But Prince said: “It helps to see that many of our dilemmas and problems are similar, even if our situations are different and whatever happens, there will always be a solution.”

Why marriages break up in the UAE

According to Leaves Dubai, one in three marriages break up worldwide – and the UAE is no exception. Its members say there are many reasons that lead to such break-ups in this country:

Lack of responsibility and involvement with the family to the extent back home as maids are easily available

More time, avenues to socialise through work or otherwise. For many, work, social and sports commitments takes precedence over family

Anonymity. Away from their home people tend to make up their own history as there’s a feeling that they can get away with it

Pressure to keep up with an image of being well to do and being with the ‘happening’ crowd.

Tips for estranged women in the UAE

Leaves Dubai offers free information and advice to residents going through a divorce or separation. It meets once a month. Open to anyone, it has reached to over a dozen estranged women so far.

Some tips for women:

Don’t be alone in an unhappy situation and don’t act on impulse

Seek advice from different people and areas

Trust your instinct with lawyers. Ask for pro bono time first as lawyers can be expensive

Whatever happens, have an amicable settlement with your spouse. You need each other in this country

Diffuse the power play and talk rationally as a couple

Depending on the situation, make the spouse take financial, emotional and intellectual responsibility

No matter how young the kids are, be honest to them