x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Many Emiratis remain open to marriage with non-nationals

Mixed marriages are at historic levels but discrimination is rife

ABU DHABI // Since 2005, more than a quarter of Emirati marriages have been to non-nationals, but the children of such marriages face the risk of discrimination, academics say.

"I think the ethno-politics and the attacks are becoming more strong, they're becoming more aggressive," says Dr Rima Sabban, an associate professor of sociology at Zayed University.

"The issue of identity and who you are and where you're coming from is becoming more aggressive, and people are becoming more vocal. Nationalism is definitely an issue."

Emiratis from mixed marriages feel the value traditionally placed on lineage and tribal affiliation is increasingly framed in terms of nationality.

"[Nationalism] has had more of an impact than anything else," says Tariq bin Hendi, 30, an Emirati PhD candidate at Imperial College London who has an American mother.

"You have an embedded segregation in that and to me that's very disturbing, and that's the problem I have. I actually am really worried about this process that we're undergoing because it's very in your face and it's very unwelcoming."

Mixed marriages are often interpreted as a sign of the times - a result of globalisation, the rise of romantic love or a reaction to the rising cost of Emirati weddings.

Yet generations of mariners and traders have married women from across the Arabian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and beyond.

The rate of Emiratis marrying non-nationals has changed little since National Statistics Bureau records started in 2005, fluctuating between 25 and 27 per cent.

The highest rates of mixed marriages were in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where 37 and 33 per cent of marriages were to non-nationals in 2011.

The lowest rates are in Fujairah, where only 8 per cent of marriages are to foreigners. Mixed marriages rose from 23 per cent in 2005 to 37 per cent in 2011 in Dubai, but stayed constant in Abu Dhabi.

Statistics for last year are not yet available.

With more children having mixed parentage, some feel that the stigma has receded in recent years thanks to media, social networking and a more open society.

"Before we used to hear about these things but now everybody is becoming more open-minded," says Sumayya Al Maftool, 31, an Emirati with an Indian mother, who works in Dubai.

"We see in our religion, in Islam, it is written that we should not look at the difference in other nationalities."

Where you live is important as there is less discrimination in the big cities, says Mr bin Hendi. "I think in Dubai they accepted a long time ago that there are no 'pure' Emiratis, irrespective of what people try to pretend."

Others feel that as globalisation takes increasing hold in the Gulf, segregation is paradoxically growing.

"There's no friendship like before between locals and others," says Maryam Al Ali, 30, an Emirati from Ras Al Khaimah with an Egyptian mother.

At the same time, the high rate of mixed marriages is also causing some anger and a fear that a foreign mother will somehow "dilute" Emirati culture.

The Grand Mufti of Dubai, Dr Ahmed Al Haddad, called for restrictions on mixed nationality marriages in 2010, stating that "in Islam choosing your life partner is a personal freedom" but "personal freedoms can be restricted for the benefit of public interest".

One of the explanations put forward for why men marry non-nationals is the high cost of dowries and weddings, but those men lose their right to financial support of up to Dh70,000 in wedding costs.

For Dr Sabban, the solution to the problem of discrimination is more discussion.

"The society has to find ways for this type of politics to be let out, to be spoken of, to be encouraged into coming out in a creative way and less in tension," she says. "It requires more, as I see it, social awareness, more social programmes, more government and also media."

azacharias@thenational.ae