During the time I spent living in the US, I only had one relative move there.
Being so distant and disconnected from family in the Middle East while living on the west coast, when I finally had kin residing on an American shore, they were all the way across the country in New Jersey. Having not seen my cousin in almost two decades, I was ecstatic to hear the news and meet her husband, who was the primary reason for her migration to the Jersey shore.
But what I was unaware of, and soon discovered, was her spouse was a not-so-distant relative of mine, too.
“We don’t mention it here, but we are cousins,” they said, proudly. Having been cultured by the US for so long I was initially taken aback, but soon recalled how much of a norm this was back home.
Consanguineous marriages – those between blood relatives – are common in many parts of the world including the UAE, where they have been tradition for countless generations. These inter-family marriages have been preferred and thought to be more stable in the Arab world for a number of reasons, including strengthening bonds of the family, simplifying marriage and dowry arrangements and keeping wealth and property within the family.
Our social norms also limit the meeting of members of the opposite gender outside the family, which instinctively limits the search to those who are known and trusted: other family members.
Although these types of marriages are on the decline in many communities, the UAE is one of the few countries where the numbers seem to be rising.
By 1994, the consanguinity rate in the UAE had increased from 39 per cent to 50.5 per cent in one generation, according to a UAE University study.
With this trend seemingly continuing, the reality of inter-family marriages is creating serious consequences for future generations of Emiratis.
As inter-family marriages lead to a higher probability of offspring with genetic disorders, the UAE is now ranked sixth in the world for children born with defects, with 75 out of every 1,000 newborns having birth defects. The Government is addressing this problem and has already made premarital screening, which now not only tests for infectious diseases but also genetic blood disorders, mandatory for all couples and free for citizens.
But more must be done, as these tests are usually conducted late in the game, when the realisation of risks is not enough to opt out of the marriage.
By that time, family commitments and arrangements have been solidified.
An increase in awareness and discussion in Emirati circles would lead to more couples getting tested early.
Educating Emirati youth while they are still in school about the possibilities of birth defects from these marriages could be one solution.
Children born with birth defects and their families not only suffer, but are also an added burden on the country’s health care system. Although inter-family marriages are part and parcel of our culture, comprehension of the risks and early screening to detect their possible problems should be encouraged.
Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter at The National and a -returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US