I believe exorbitant costs, the continuation of a trend that began in the 1980s during the height of the oil boom, are the main reasons behind the escalating number of spinsters in the country.
Lavish weddings costing Emiratis more than money
While out with a friend the other day, I took the opportunity to ask about her cousin's upcoming wedding.
"She broke the engagement off," my friend said. She went on to explain: "Her fiance refused to pay for an Emirates Palace wedding party like her sister had, and she does not want people to talk."
I was not really shocked. Extravagant celebrations, six-figure dowries, and stacks of diamonds and other jewels are becoming standards of the modern Emirati wedding. I believe these exorbitant costs, the continuation of a trend that began in the 1980s during the height of the oil boom, are the main reasons behind the escalating number of spinsters in the country and represent a major threat to local families.
Allow me to talk you through the initial wedding preparation. A maher, or a dowry, is a sum of money traditionally given by a suitor to his bride as a gift for her personal use. The bride has little or no say in this matter, and the sum to be paid is agreed upon between the two families. The groom handles all the finances, from the dowry to the honeymoon hotel bookings.
How much does a typical Emirati wedding cost? The Institute for International Research in Dubai puts the figure at about Dh300,000 (US$81,673).
And, of course, businesses stand to earn a lot of money from these celebrations, as you can see from the numerous wedding exhibitions that take place around the Emirates throughout the year.
Large dowries are not a religious necessity; in fact, Islam calls for modest dowries. Instead, the increased spending on dowries and other aspects of weddings can be attributed, in my view, purely to the desire to maintain a certain social image by throwing the best wedding, and to parents' desire to guarantee a lavish lifestyle for their daughters in case their marriages dissolve.
To afford these large sums, most young men - often at the beginning of their careers - must borrow from their families or even banks. The problem is that while bank loans seem a reasonable solution in the beginning, the strain on men as they pay that debt for years while meeting their other financial responsibilities often results in discord at home and in some cases divorce.
Ahmed, a 25-year-old Emirati, took out a loan in addition to receiving a sum from his parents to throw his bride the wedding night of her dreams. Two years later, Ahmed still owes the bank, has not been on his honeymoon yet, lives with his parents and often blames his wife for his financial mess.
It is no surprise, then, that many men look to non-Khaleeji Arab women or other foreigners, who generally ask for moderate dowries. This, of course, leaves behind a growing number of single national women.
What is to be done?
One option is to encourage more young people to choose my favourite method for wedding financing - an interest-free wedding system known as eeneya. A traditional practice in the Gulf, this is a form of community support where close relatives and friends of the couple give money to finance their wedding and new life.
I am also alarmed by the materialism of young women, which I believe results in too many of them becoming spinsters. This is unfortunate not only for them but also for the country. Because Emiratis are less than 20 per cent of the population, it is important for locals to build families and produce children. Our cultural identity also becomes blurred when too many Emiratis marry foreigners.
To avoid such an issue, neighbouring Oman has barred its nationals from marrying non-nationals unless they can prove a family relationship - a second cousin, for example. During protests this year seeking reforms, Omanis' demands included the establishment of a marriage fund to provide no-interest loans to young couples.
While I am not in favour of interfering in someone's choice of spouse, Oman's policy on marriage will push young Omani men to think twice about marrying expatriates.
To support the institution of marriage, the UAE Government has launched several initiatives, including the Marriage Fund, established by a federal decree in 1992. The fund provides an amount to help Emiratis with their marriage expenses and also organises mass weddings, thus reducing the costs for individual couples.
But the solution to the problems of rising wedding costs ultimately lies in the hands of Emiratis. Young women and their families must reduce their materialistic demands. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but this cannot be wise when it comes to weddings. Emirati families should stop competing with each other for the fairy-tale wedding and instead focus on how to secure a happy life for the couple.
Instead of burdening young grooms at the beginning of married life, the brides' families should encourage them by reducing the dowry and helping them to start a healthy, debt-free life.
The money spent on a celebration could be put towards furnishing their future home or be invested, which would benefit the couple far more than a four-hour wedding party.
Manar Al Hinai, who is an Emirati, is a fashion designer and was named an Arab Woman of the Year