x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Lost in translation: women who marry foreigners in Saudi

Love can cross borders, but rights sometimes do not, especially in the case of Saudis who marry foreign nationals.

Should nationality be a factor when you're looking for love? For many, it is.

Five years ago, when my Saudi friend Nouf decided to marry a non-Saudi, she was warned that her husband and her children would "forever be foreigners" in Saudi Arabia. They'd require visas for the rest of their lives to stay with her.

But Nouf, which is not her real name, went ahead and got married to an Arab national from the Levant anyway.

"I just couldn't find a suitable Saudi man to marry, and I was over 30," she said recently. "Saudi men usually want someone younger and someone within the family. It is very difficult to find someone who understands and loves you."

And like many who I know who married outside their nationalities, particularly Gulf women who married non-Gulf men, it turned out to be a bigger sacrifice than they ever imagined. In Nouf's case, I watched as our Saudi friends shunned her and slowly cut her off from their social gatherings and special occasions.

Her husband is actually from a richer family than Nouf's, but because he was not Saudi and not from a famous pedigree, she had fallen in their eyes and was forever "lost".

Nouf's experience isn't unique. According to a report published in the Saudi Gazette, out of the nearly 163,000 marriage contracts signed by courts in Saudi Arabia in 2011, almost 2,000 were issued to Saudi women who married non-Saudi males, and 2,640 contracts were issued to Saudi men marrying non-Saudi women.

Yemeni men topped the list of non-Saudi men married to Saudi women at 456, followed by Kuwaitis (351), Qataris (247), Syrians (149), Emiratis (124), Egyptians (111), Lebanese (66) and Pakistanis (46).

As if life wasn't hard enough after she married out of her nationality, Nouf experienced an entirely new level of frustration when she had her first child. The happiest moments were turned into logistical and bureaucratic nightmares.

When Nouf wanted to visit me one weekend, it hit her hard that she couldn't just bring her baby; the child requires a visa to visit the UAE while she doesn't. What might sound like an inconvenience to most expatriates was a painful reminder for a woman like Nouf. It was a concrete example of the limitations she and her child face.

The UAE has moved in the other direction. It was truly a historic moment last year, when a presidential decree granted Emirati citizenship to children of Emirati women married to non-Emirati men. Though women must still apply for this right, and wait for approval, at least a process is in place.

Saudi women had hoped they'd received similar news on Saturday, when a story posted by Al Arabiya made the rounds on social networks, claiming similar maternity benefits. Instead, Saudi women like Nouf had been misled by a poor translation.

A correction appended to the article reads: "Due to a flaw in translation, the word 'rights' was omitted from the English version of what appeared in Al Riyadh newspaper. As such earlier versions of this story insinuated that Saudi women can pass the 'citizenship' to their children from non-Saudi husbands; however, this has been rectified to say 'citizenship rights' (which gives children from Saudi mothers rights to work and abide in Saudi Arabia)."

The disappointment among my own circle of friends married to non-Saudis was deep, but some were happy that at least now they would be able to sponsor their children and husbands.

Still, this is not enough for many. Saudi women need to obtain permission from the interior minister to marry a foreign national. Unfortunately, this can take a very long time and so many end up getting married without this piece of paper.

The decree announced on Saturday may be a step in the right direction. Some day, perhaps, the crush of paperwork and indignation will subside. And Nouf will never have to wonder if life would have been easier if she'd married a Saudi.



On Twitter: @Arabianmau