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In UAE, marriage is seen as the key to national identity

Published on 20/10/2009

Abu Dhabi — Widad Samawi is a woman with a mission — to encourage Emiratis to marry and also urge local couples to try to rescue failing marriages in a country where just one in seven is a UAE native.

This is because she also believes that getting married and staying married is a way of preserving national identity in the United Arab Emirates.

Marriage in the Gulf state, with its majority expatriate population and myriad cultures, is key to keeping national identity alive, according to the Abu Dhabi Campaign for Social Cohesion, in which Samawi is a leading light.

"The United Arab Emirates is now a global country," said Samawi, chief executive of Al-Tawasel Centre for Training and Consultancy which is co-organiser of the campaign along with several government bodies.

"But there is always a need for the family to safeguard the country’s fundamentals so that its culture does not melt into the cultures of others," she said.

"The marriage campaign is… to protect the identity of our society," said Samawi, clad in a traditional black abaya or full-length robe and a white-beige head cover.

Emiratis represent around just 15 percent of a population estimated at around 6.4 million.

Government officials and commentators have voiced concern about this influx of foreigners whose cultures some see as a threat to local traditions, urging a solution to the "demographic imbalance."

"We have a mix of cultures with around 200 nationalities in the UAE, and we coexist in peace," Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan told a conference on national identity last year.

"However, this mix should not affect our national identity."

Dwindling birth rates, rising divorce levels and — until recently — growing numbers of expats have prompted the state to pursue an aggressive policy of promoting marriage among UAE citizens.

However one in four marriages resulted in divorce in the UAE last year, with 42 percent of the cases involving couples in the 20-30 age group, according to studies cited by Tawasel.

"The idea of the campaign was born out of the reality we saw," Samawi said.

"We have noted an increase in the number of marriage consultations concerning couples with disagreements, especially over the past three years with the opening up of society," she said.

"The increase in the number of expatriates and the multiplicity of cultures is a healthy matter. However, we have to take only what is appropriate for us to preserve our identity."

During the social cohesion campaign, participants undergo training that includes lectures and workshops to help them solve marital problems, with topics ranging from treatment of spouses to raising children.

The centre also set up booths at public locations such as shopping malls to offer free consultations.

"At the beginning it was very difficult to convince Emiratis of the importance of getting advice about their marital life because… they didn’t really want to talk about their private lives," Samawi said.

As in all Muslim societies, marriage in the UAE is considered a religious duty, and has always been promoted by the state. The government plays its role with marriage-linked aid and state-sponsored weddings.

In the northern emirate of Umm al-Qaiwain, 19 grooms gathered last month for a mass wedding ceremony sponsored by the government and attended by the ruler of the city-state.

A folkloric all-male band in traditional dress beat drums and chanted songs to celebrate the occasion.

"The aim of the group wedding is to help grooms with the financial costs of marriage, a huge chunk of which goes on the celebrations, and thus encourage them to wed," said Sultan al-Kharji, head of the organising committee.

The UAE Marriage Fund was set up in the early 1970s to help young people with marriage on both the financial and educational levels. Men who marry fellow Emiratis are entitled to a 70,000-dirham (19,000-dollar) grant.

"The aim of sponsoring the weddings is to encourage local men and women to get married to form a solid Emirati family and… to preserve national identity," said Rashed al-Kashf, a Marriage Fund board member.