Weddings are an expensive business and there is little prospect that the popular trend of couples spending more than they – or their families – can afford to celebrate the big day, will change any time soon. However, at least one Gulf state is trying to ensure that the celebration of the institution of marriage, which is so highly valued in Middle Eastern culture, does not become restricted to only the wealthy and privileged.
The UAE established its Marriage Fund back in 1992, as part of a programme of social change instituted by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Zayed, who is often referred to as “the father of the nation”, had already noticed the spiralling costs of getting married and decided that the government would step in, where required, to underpin the state of matrimony, generally regarded as one of the essential pillars of a healthy society, by offering a grant in the form of a loan to help pay for the ceremony and all the incidental costs.
For the past three decades, the Marriage Fund has helped more than 60,000 UAE citizens to marry and continues to ensure that no Emirati need remain single because of financial constraints. The grant is worth 70,000 AED, which is the equivalent of around $20,000, and is available to all single Emirati couples who seek it. In keeping with the traditions of the Arab world, the bride and groom make their commitment to each other separately. The bride celebrates with female family and friends, while the groom makes his vows in the company of an all-male gathering.
As part of its brief the Marriage Fund runs also operates an holistic programme to help those who elect to use its services. Its courses include planning a successful marriage; financial structuring for the family; communication skills; an examination of rights and duties, as well as all round parenting advice and and guidance on how to deal with any marital difficulties should they arise.
“We take our responsibilities very seriously,” explained Dr. Maitha Al Shamsi, UAE Minister of State and Chairwoman of the Abu Dhabi-based Marriage Fund.
“We support couples from the early stages of planning the wedding, right through to helping the couple formulate a workable budget, advise on parenting and, should the need arise, we provide counselling when and if any problems arise in the marriage.
“We organise mass weddings around the country in cooperation with strategic partners and implement social and health campaigns designed to keep all family members happy, healthy and aware that there are always solutions – it is usually just a matter of finding them and that’s where we can help.”
The western trend of unmarried couples living together without the benefit of matrimony is unlikely to find favour in the UAE, Dr Shamsi explained. “It is not a realistic option in our society”, she told The Middle East Online. “Despite the changes you see around you in somewhat futuristic cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi our culture remains a traditional one, in many ways quite tribal. A lot of marriages are still arranged or at least facilitated through the family network and I don’t foresee a time when this will be drastically different.