The family lies at the heart of Emirati life. Marriage, the propagation of children, the love between a husband and wife, a parent and child, all carefully nurtured by the wider family united within the Muslim faith, this is the cement that holds society together. Today it is under attack. Figures released by the United Nations show the UAE has one of the highest rates of divorce in the Muslim world.
Between 2002 and 2004, the number of broken marriages in the country leapt 13 per cent, pushing the annual figure to 12,974. Statistics from the Tawasel Centre for Training and Family are just as alarming. They show that one in four marriages among the whole population is breaking down, and of these 42 per cent are couples in their 20s. Experts are so concerned that a campaign has been launched to offer counselling sessions for young couples. These are designed to give them more realistic expectations of marriage and instil a more responsible attitude.
So what has gone wrong? Is divorce simply a price society must pay for the sudden affluence bestowed on the Emirates by its oil and gas reserves? Is it the contagion of more liberal attitudes absorbed from the large numbers of western expatriates and their television soaps? Or is it changing aspirations among a better-educated generation? These are questions that prey on the mind of Widad Samawi, director of the Tawasel centre, who is co-ordinating the National Campaign for Social Cohesion offering marriage counselling sessions in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbia. She is convinced that proper preparation for marriage can help reduce the number of divorces.
"We can say that there are many problems behind this," she says. "First of all it's missing marital education. Newlywed couples don't know each other's needs. They have no experience as they go into a new life with new responsibilities and a new kind of care. It's a special care. It needs them to have respect for each other. "Too often they come to a point when differences arise between them, the views they have lead them to quarrel and separate.
"A wife must know the responsibilities she has. She moves to a new house with a new partner. He has his own needs of respect. He needs her to be attentive to him, to look after him. It is the same thing for him. He should take care of his wife. Marriage is about sharing. "If there is a child, after the first or second year, then both of them have to devote their efforts to a healthy environment for the children."
Mrs Samawi cites exposure to foreign cultures through television and film as a possible cause of friction. Growing up absorbed by American TV series and chat shows such as Oprah, young people can develop a taste for a very different style of life. "Some couples like to imitate what is going on in the media," she says. "They have their own dreams but when they start married life they face the reality. Say for example the wife is fond of a character in a TV show, she wants to imitate the actress, but she can't do this without annoying her partner."
Couples often want to maintain the culture they are born into but because the UAE is now open to so many different cultural influences, aspirations can change, causing friction between husband and wife. Tony Maalouli, a divorce lawyer and managing director of Dubai-based ProConsult Advocates, believes the footprint left by foreign cultures has increased the rate of separation by affecting the traditions of a country that is inherently more conservative.
Having practised law here for eight years, he says he has seen a rise in divorce cases and now sees around six cases a month. "It's a more open society here, Dubai is a cosmopolitan city," he says. "It's a melting pot for different cultures and Emiratis are exposed to other cultures. I am not saying there is anything wrong with these cultures, but the rate of divorce in these countries is high. These countries tend to leave their effect on the UAE and the way of lifestyle."
Financial worries can also lead to marital problems, say the officials, and this is one area touched on in counselling sessions. Money is one of the main things couples argue about and, with an Emirati wedding costing anything upwards from Dh250,000, it is a problem that can strike very early. The Marriage Fund, initiated by the late Sheikh Zayed, founder of the nation, helps bridegrooms cover wedding costs and also offers lectures on the obligations of married life.
Fatima al Ameri is a supervisor with the General Women's Union, which also began sponsoring premarital classes earlier this year. She says the combination of an immature bride and groom, with little experience in budgeting, can lead to problems. "There are many financial reasons, maybe he cannot afford her needs. She may ask for more than she needs," she says. "Often a wife may demand more than the budget, she wants to go abroad and travel for example. And he can't afford that financially because he is still young."
While the extended family has traditionally been an important source of support for newlyweds, too much interference can be damaging. Though a strained relationship between the bride and groom and their respective in-laws is hardly a problem unique to Emiratis, the tradition of living with the husband's family can exacerbate it, the officials warn. "Some wives have to live with their mother-in-law and they need more privacy," says Mrs al Ameri. "That's when the problems come. The mother-in-law doesn't allow it. It puts the husband in the middle."
Mrs Samawi advises newly married couples to keep private issues to themselves. "Both of them should know that they should keep secrets together under the roof. They do not need to spread it to the family. Also friends interfere. One of our goals in this campaign is to guide couples if they need consultation. They should take advice from someone experienced, an expert. Friends might give wrong advice."
The Islamic tradition allows a man to divorce his wife by telling her three times: "I divorce thee", though court related paperwork must follow. Some Muslim countries have deemed that the ease with which a man can divorce his wife contributes to the problem. Tunisia and Morocco now require couples to attend counselling and then, if they still wish to divorce, to appoint legal advisers and state their case in court. Though there has been no official policy on banning oral divorce in the UAE, some Islamic scholars are quietly considering a similar path.
Divorce in Arab culture carries a greater stigma for the woman than for the man. Often a divorced woman loses custody of her children and the right to continue living in her marital home. She usually returns to live with her family. One common conception is that the greater freedom offered to young women today - university education, greater career prospects and more independence - will make them less likely to find satisfaction in marriage. The consensus among experts we talked to, however, was this was not necessarily the case. They believe well-educated couples are less likely to suffer marital problems.
"I think that the woman who works and her husband is well educated, their marriages last longer than the one who is less educated," says Ms Ameri. "When they get married in their 30s, they don't usually have this kind of problem, their marriages last. Also the education, it teaches them and they respect each other for it." email@example.com * With additional reporting by Tala Ismail and Rasha Elass