The marriage fund has an opportunity to be a first mover in adapting its procedures and policies to keep up with the changing social tide that is sweeping the region, and reduce divorce rates.
To reduce divorce rates, give couples long-term support
The UAE Marriage Fund was established in 1992 to encourage, build, and sustain Emirati marriages. But in the two decades since its creation, the fund has come to be known by citizens mostly as a financial support mechanism to ease the potential debt burden at the early stages of marriage, either through financial aid or wedding arrangements.
The Marriage Fund has done a great job of promoting mass weddings, for example, which not only bring financial costs down but also create a strong sense of unity among citizens regardless of wealth or social status.
The fund has also handed out millions of dirhams worth of wedding grants to give married couples a financial cushion to get their marriages off the ground. But once a marriage is "off the ground", the fund is less successful.
According to court records, the divorce rate among Emiratis appears to have inched higher in recent years. For instance, Dubai courts issued 1,100 divorce certificates in 2012, a 26 per cent increase from 2011. These seem to be pretty high rates considering that the fund has been in place for over 20 years.
Some might argue that the reason for these high divorce rates is because in many cases marriages were doomed to fail in the first place, given that many marriages are of convenience or arranged. But I feel that the biggest problem contributing to high rates of divorce is social attitudes towards marriage that have not grown with the times.
This is not to suggest that Emirati couples need to start going out on dates before they get married, as that may go against religious and cultural norms. But perhaps what we do need is a system that enables couples to get to know each other a little better before committing to a life together, helping to nurture marriages that are based on mutual feelings of love, care and respect.
Some of the most successful UAE marriages I know are of couples who worked together before marriage. Work is one of the very few settings where people can have simple, mature conversations about life ambitions and what they do and do not like. These moments help a potential couple understand each other a little better and develop a basis on which a loving relationship can be built. Sometimes that is all it takes.
I do not know what can be permissible by society and religion to promote interactions between couples before marriage. But perhaps the Marriage Fund could promote chaperoned settings for couples and develop a programme to help couples to build the foundations for a successful marriage before tying the knot, rather than after it.
High divorce rates suggest that the Marriage Fund has been throwing money at an issue that has little to do with money. Or at least there are better ways to spend that money. For example, instead of a Dh70,000 wedding grant, which is more than likely to be spent on paying existing debts, why not support the couple with housing finance or a government land grant?
What a couple really needs is not a short term financial cushion, but long term stability in a home to start a loving family.
After the wedding day and honeymoon comes real life, which may be a tough transition for many couples. For those in need of help, whether that be guidance counselling, financial advice or family matters, the Marriage Fund should be a source of help to build a family-orientated community for the UAE.
In a recent meeting of the Federal National Council, Maitha Al Shamsi, the fund's chairwoman, stated that the fund is holding lectures across the country to warn people of the negative consequences of mixed marriages. It is strange that the Marriage Fund would want to tackle potential problems with mixed marriages when they have enough problems with existing Emirati marriages.
I believe that mixed marriages based on love and family fundamentals would do more for society than an Emirati couple landing in divorce.
And the marriage fund has an opportunity to be a first mover in adapting its procedures and policies to keep up with the changing social tide that is sweeping the region. Maybe then will we start to see divorce rates coming down.
Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati social commentator
On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri