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Fighting to hold down the Emirati divorce rate

As the divorce rate in the UAE rises, M looks at government-led initiatives to help young couples stay together, and asks whether they are enough to make a difference when most women seem determined to find a Mr Rich as opposed to Mr Right.

Thinking back to her wedding day, Salma does not remember the lavishly decorated five-star hotel, the 900 guests who gathered for the wedding feast or the Dh20,000 dress that has long since been given away. The photographs of her smiling while having her hands painted with henna, dancing with her friends and going to her new home are gathering dust at the back of a drawer. No, what Salma recalls as she ponders her marriage are the two years of bitter recriminations, the rows and the spiteful barbs that marked her divorce from her childhood sweetheart.

When she tied the knot at the age of 18, she imagined the vows she exchanged were for keeps. Instead, the honeymoon period lasted just one month. "It was a love marriage. I was very young when I fell for him," says Salma, an Emirati whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity. "I knew his family so I thought he was a decent man. We were happy for just one month. Then I discovered he saw married life as very different from his relationship life - as I found out several times.

"He was not a serious man in married life. I would find text messages on his phone from other girls. He kept saying it was the last time and he would not do it again but, eventually, I could not take any more.

"To make matters worse, he was very jealous and once we were married, he did not want me going out, driving or studying. Because he was doing wrong things, he assumed I would as well." When life became intolerable, Salma was initially persuaded to stay by her own parents who were worried about the shame of a divorce in the family, but after five years she eventually left the home of her in-laws for good. Her two-year battle for independence ended in the divorce courts in July last year when her ex-husband was ordered to pay her two years' salary and draw a line under the marriage.

Now 26, Salma has been left contemplating her future with the stigma of a divorce hanging over her and a return to her parents' home, wondering where it all went wrong. She is not the only one. According to the Juma al Majid Centre for Culture Heritage in Dubai, more than one third of Emirati marriages in the UAE end in divorce. Figures from Dubai Statistics Centre suggest that between 2006 and 2008, up to 61 per cent of all divorces in the emirate involved Emirati marriages.

And last year Mariam al Roumi, the Minister of Social Affairs, said the rise in divorces was "alarming" after it was revealed by the Federal National Council that one in three couples in Sharjah were ending their marriages. Sixty per cent of those seeking a divorce were Emiratis. Couple that with the fact 54 per cent of Emirati women are still single in their 30s, according to the ministry's research team, and it becomes clear why the erosion of the sacred institution of marriage is causing consternation in some circles.

Marriage has long formed the bedrock of traditional Arab and Muslim society but some feel that institution is now under serious threat. While there are no officially collated national figures from recent years, the United Nations statistics division found the number of divorces between 2002 and 2004 rose 13 per cent to nearly 13,000. Perhaps foreseeing a potential crisis, the Ministry of Social Affairs announced last November that it planned to carry out the first nationwide inquiry into how many Emiratis were divorcing and why.

The results are expected this December and it is hoped they will give policymakers some guidance in curbing the ever-increasing numbers. Preventative measures are no new thing; four years ago the Dubai Government issued a list of dos and don'ts, packed like a wedding invitation card, as a guide for prospective couples. "Don't nag all the time because he likes to be free as a bird," women were warned. "Don't expect her to solve problems in a reasonable way. She is too passionate to solve them logically," was the reciprocal advice for men. While the advice might seem outdated, at least the impetus to do something is there.

This year, Government officials have upped the ante and are leaving less to chance by planting marriage guidance counsellors right where one might least expect them. Among the frills, the 11-tier wedding cakes and the frou-frou frocks of the Bride Show Dubai in April, there was one section that had never been there before. The Al Zaawaj al Naajeh zone - named after an Arabic phrase meaning 'successful marriage' - was created to ensure prospective brides and grooms do not take the plunge with rose-tinted specs.

Unromantic it may be but rather than be blinkered by the Dh1 million meringue-like dresses, the ornate decorations and the sumptuous floral displays, event organisers decided those embarking on the biggest step of their lives might need to do so with a sensible note of caution. "There are no guarantees for a successful marriage," says Iman al Hashimi, a relationship counsellor with Dubai Government's Islamic affairs department, who is often called upon by the courts to see if she can mediate in troubled unions.

Over the last decade, al Hashimi has seen 8,000 people traipsing through the doors of her office in Al Mamzar, all asking the same question: how do I make sure this lasts a lifetime? Too often, she says, prospective brides and grooms get married for the wrong reasons, whether it is looks, salary or status. Money is a key issue which comes up time and again, from brides who have high expectations of the life they hope to lead, to husbands who end up in crippling debt trying to provide a dream wedding and luxury lifestyle.

While most of those who seek her help are women, their complaints are frequently the same and al Hashimi's advice, dished out like the words of a kind but tough-talking possibly rather old-fashioned aunt, is echoed repeatedly: go for Mr or Ms Average. "Always look for one who is in-between," she says. "From our experience we can see many problems come from marrying a rich man. He travels all the time, he is out of his office and away from his home. That does not help the family settle and have a relaxing life.

"If a girl marries that kind of man, she will never settle in a lovely lifestyle. Then there is the other kind of man who does not have a job. She thinks she might help him until he finds a job. This case is very dangerous because she could lose a year of her life waiting for him and giving him money. We have 135 cases of women who got engaged but left him before they got married for this reason.

"Go for a normal man in a normal life with a normal job. This is the best man for every woman." Half of those who seek her advice are unmarried and want help in finding the right life partner. "We tell her how to start out on a path to a happy life, how she can be taken into his heart from the first moment and how to keep herself in a respectable way; how to keep her marriage going for a long time without problems and how to share everything with her husband," says al Hashimi, an Emirati who says her doctrine for married life has seen her happily wed for 30 years.

"For locals, the problems start before marriage. She wants him to be in an executive job, to be rich, to pay a high dowry; she wants him to have too many things. This is completely wrong. Women should not be thinking about losing a man because they want a dress for Dh80,000 instead of Dh20,000. Too many local cases end in divorce because of money. His budget should be secondary. First and foremost, he should be a good Muslim who prays and fasts."

Last year, she says, nearly one in five people before the divorce courts was an Emirati ending an engagement because of money-related matters. There are two types of people who come before the courts: those who have undergone a religious ceremony but are not yet living as man and wife, seen as an engagement but nevertheless binding, and those who have had a wedding. According to the Tawasel Centre for Training and Family in Abu Dhabi, which gives marriage counselling sessions, 42 per cent of all couples who divorce in the UAE are in their 20s.

The majority of those seeking al Hashimi's pearls of wisdom, either in person or by phone or e-mail, are Muslims from the Gulf area but she also sees Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos as well as Christians from the West. The advice is the same regardless: "Sometimes you might meet someone through work who talks to you and says lovely things but after a year, he changes, or when you have spent time with him, you find things you do not like in his personality. We say, don't look at the job or salary, see the way he respects you and the way he speaks.

"Ask his work, family and friends about him. From the first day, the wife should sit with her husband and work out a budget for their salaries.

"Then she should find out what he likes, what he loves to eat, as he will love her if she gives him something he likes and the food is on time.

"Has she made her home nice and tidy because he is coming home? Twenty per cent of cases are because the man is working morning and evening and goes home tired.

"The woman does not understand he is working so she can enjoy the good life. Listen to your husband: why is he spending all his time at work?" Husbands, meantime, should avoid socialising on internet websites such as Facebook to avoid the temptation to stray and treat their wives and families to one day out a week: "As many as 40 per cent of cases are because of the internet. He should not be using it to socialise. Sit and talk to your wife in a nice way instead."

Like the government-issue dos and don'ts, al Hashimi's words sound rather like a 1950s handbook to living in domesticated bliss. So are their suggestions sound advice or do they bear any relevance to today's modern generation, who face different cultural and social pressures to their older peers? Wedad Lootah has one way of tapping into the youthful psyche and packaging advice in a palatable form. Her sexually explicit manual Top Secret: Principles and Etiquette of an Intimate Marital Relationship, giving tips on how to keep your spouse satisfied in bed, has become a bestseller and has pride of place on the counter at branches of Virgin Megastores.

The book, which is available in Arabic and English, has been sanctioned by the Ministry of Information and Culture but has earned her death threats. Lootah, a marriage guidance counsellor in the family guidance section of Dubai courts, is unrepentant. "Sex is an important part of marriage. That is in the Quran," she says. "Mostly it is women who come in to see me. They are here because men do not always understand they have responsibility in the marriage beyond working. They have a responsibility to make sure the wife gets pleasure."

Sara al Muhairi, 27, an Emirati mother of two and a primary school teacher from Al Barsha, Dubai, agrees such advice is vital to prepare for marriage. "I read a book about everything because there are things you need to know, such as what to do on the first night," she says. "Our mothers never talked about these things, they were too shy." She married her friend's brother in an arranged marriage four years ago after she graduated from college and now lives with her in-laws.

"I said yes because I liked his attitude. He was calm and funny," she says. "We had long phone calls after we were engaged so I felt I knew enough about him. I asked him what our life would be like together and when we would buy a new house. It is important that we share finances: my pocket is his pocket. "He is not rich but we are fine, Alhamdullilah. It mattered less that he was rich, it was more important that he was a good man.

"We share everything down the middle. That is how a marriage works. Stay away from arguments and do everything his family ask for. You should not be too proud or stubborn. When he comes home late, you smile. "Love your life and stay the same as you were before you got married. Whether you are with him or alone, stay happy. Use the time alone to have fun with your friends." Al Muhairi is happily married, thanks to her sunny disposition and her ability to keep a sensible head on her young shoulders.

But others do not fare as well. Maitha al Shamsi, chairwoman of the Marriage Fund, which offers grants of up to Dh70,000 to hard-up Emiratis marrying women of the same nationality, warned in May of "unacceptable" wedding costs saddling newlyweds with financial constraints and problems from the outset. Figures from the Bride Show Dubai show the average wedding costs Dh300,000 with one in 10 couples spending more than Dh500,000.

At this year's bridal show, managers from yebab.com, a website giving advice on where to shop, offered one solution: envelopes with a budget sheet printed on the back to stop brides-to-be from overspending. Traditionally, plain envelopes are given to the groom, who fills them with cash for the bride to spend on her dress and accoutrements. Such measures are long overdue, says Farah, 29, who married in a lavish Dh500,000 ceremony with 2,000 guests eight years ago.

She has yet to tell her husband she spent half the budget on her dress, fearing he would say it was a frivolous waste of money. But she says: "I would have been happy with a simple dress if that had been all he could afford. Every woman dreams of a huge wedding though." Farah admits once the band stopped playing and the floral arrangements died, she was wholly unprepared for marriage: "The first three years were rough until we got to know one another. We argued about lots of little things and in the end, we had to compromise

"I think that is normal. I never expected an angel but my husband thought I would understand him from the beginning." Divorces are on the increase because Emirati women are learning to stand up for themselves, she says: "Before, they were dependent on their husbands but now they are working and can support themselves." Widad Smawi, a lecturer in Islamic culture at Dubai College, tackled the lack of preparation for marriage with the National Campaign for Social Cohesion last year, offering counselling to would-be couples in the Abu Dhabi emirate.

"Too many people do not get married for the right reasons," she says. "All they think about is their own happiness, the wedding party and appearances. "They do not think that marriage is a big responsibility and the basis for building a family. You have two people coming from different cultures and family environments so they need to be patient with one another, otherwise there will be conflict. "They should realise marriage means building a new life, caring about the other person and giving up their selfishness. Most of all, they ought to think: 'This marriage has to be for keeps'. For love to stay, there has to be respect and understanding."

She believes couples due to marry should attend courses and have counselling before taking the plunge, while the responsibilities of marriage should be incorporated into the school curriculum from primary school age. "Most problems arise from a lack of knowledge. These things should be taught alongside biology and science." Getting to know your partner before tying the knot is important, she says, as long as it is done within an Islamic framework.

Is the new access to advisors having an impact? Seemingly not. Alia al Falasi, a 20-year-old student, who is planning her wedding to Khalifa al Muhairi, 23, is one of several women asked what they look for in a man who said she wants "a rich man, a house and respect", in that order. "I want him to be rich so he will provide whatever I need. That way I know what I will face in the future." As an afterthought, she adds "children, a family and love" to the equation.

Meanwhile Salma has learned the hard way. Prospective suitors are once again lining up for her hand but this time around, she is proceeding with caution. "If I had been offered marriage counselling, I would have understood more about men and relationships from the beginning," she says. "I have read a lot of books now and have more of an idea about who the right man is. I want respect, honesty and trust. They are the most important foundations for a long-lasting marriage."

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