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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

'Til debt do us part or girl meets boy, boy meets bank manager

Wedding costs have been spiralling out of control for decades, fuelled by social expectations

Nobody goes home hungry from a Gulf wedding, not even the hotel staff. Jaime Puebla / The National
Nobody goes home hungry from a Gulf wedding, not even the hotel staff. Jaime Puebla / The National

The five-star hotel’s function room has been dressed like a Broadway stage set. There are flowers everywhere and at the heart of the set-up sits a golden gazebo, inside which sits a golden throne, the kowsha (bridal chair). The function room’s ornate doors swing open and in walks the aroosa (bride), resplendent in a white taffeta and satin dress. The spotlight and two photographers follow as she glides slowly across the room with a well-rehearsed elegance. The dress' precious gemstones sparkle unpredictably as the spotlights and flash-photography hit their facets at different angles. The aroosa has worn her hair high – Burj Khalifa style - crowning her towering bouffant with a heavily bejewelled tiara. The guests gasp, the extravagance and opulence are breathtaking. So is the price tag.

For decades now, we have read about the spiralling costs of weddings in the Arabian Gulf. The prohibitive wedding expenses are often cited as a reason for increased exogamy (Gulf men marrying non-Gulf women). One group of young men in Saudi Arabia started a Facebook campaign titled, “Let her remain a spinster!”. Their grievance was the debt-inducing costs associated with marrying their compatriots, with one of the most significant expenses being the cost of the wedding celebrations.

An article published in 2011, in the Journal of International Women's Studies, argues that the social expectation of lavish and elaborate wedding parties has contributed to the reemergence of an antiquated practice known as zawaaj al-misyar (the traveller's marriage). Essentially, misyar marriage is a form of marriage contract where the man has the physical rights of a husband without the material responsibilities – the wife will often remain housed with her parents, with her “travelling" husband visiting at will.

Gulf governments have made efforts to tackle the wedding cost issue, from providing wedding funds to encouraging group weddings to the setting of spending caps. Such rules can help protect financially vulnerable people from falling into debilitating debt. Debt, depression and divorce are all well correlated. The problem with such regulations, however, is that they are incredibly difficult to enforce. Can you imagine an aroosa being led away in handcuffs for wearing a dress that exceeded the spending limit? England once had such laws – the Acts of Apparel (Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance) – they didn’t work very well.

If we want to moderate this aspect of contemporary Gulf culture, we must first understand the underlying motivations. Is this an unhealthy and distorted outgrowth of the noble Arab tradition of generosity and hospitality to guests? Nobody goes home hungry from a Gulf wedding, not even the hotel staff. Is it connected to collectivist cultural values, in that, if one group member has a big wedding we should all have big weddings? Is it related to rising levels of societal narcissism, where competitiveness among exhibitionists has become common place? None of these ideas are mutually exclusive, and no doubt further systematic research could help us obtain a better understanding.

Fortunately, a group of students and academics at Zayed University have recently begun exploring this phenomenon within the broader context of studying sustainable consumer behaviour in the UAE. Led by Dr Damien Arthur, the Emirati wedding study examines the situation from a variety of perspectives, taking into consideration the views of wedding planners, brides, grooms and parents. This study has been produced as a video documentary that will premiere later this year (October) as part of the videography track of a major consumer research conference - North American Conference of the Association for Consumer Research.

Things change by necessity or through reactivity to circumstance. The most profound, longest lasting and most beneficial changes, however, are brought about through understanding. The Emirati wedding project is an important contribution to understanding why a beautiful and joyous occasion is increasingly becoming entangled with stress and indebtedness.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University