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MANAMA, May 16 2010 (IPS) - Surging dowries and the skyrocketing costs of living amid constricting economic opportunities made worse by the global financial crisis have placed a heavy burden on Bahraini men contemplating marriage.
“The average dowries used to be 3,000 Bahraini dinars (about 8,000 U.S. dollars) but increased to 6,000 dinars (16,000 dollars) in just less than one year, because of the rise in the cost of living,” Bahrain marriage officiant Hisham Al Rumathi told IPS. That is way beyond the reach of the average Bahraini male with his limited income, he stressed.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, located in South-west Asia and an important part of the Middle East known for its vast oil reserves, the standard dowries are significantly higher, ranging from 6,000 to 20,000 dinars (around 16,000 to 53,000 dollars)
Men in Bahrain and other oil-rich Gulf states – namely, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – traditionally pay dowries demanded by their brides’ families.
Grooms are also expected to shoulder the costs of holding expensive weddings that could last four days and include parties to cap the honeymoon that usually extends to a month, Al Rumaithi said.
Historically, according to researcher and economist Abdulhameed Abdulghafar, dowries were never the unusually heavy burden that they are today. But during the oil shocks of the 1970s, which saw a sharp rise in oil prices and eventually brought sudden wealth into the oil-rich countries, dowries began to escalate.
Such practices may have been easy to sustain during good times, only to take a beating when bad times strike.
At the height of the financial crisis that began to hit the international community three years ago, even the Gulf countries reeled under its impact, as oil prices tumbled. Major construction projects financed by oil revenue were shelved indefinitely in the face of a severe economic downturn.
Sameer Al Dossairi is still paying for the loan that he took out years ago to pay for the dowry demanded from him by his future in-laws when he sought their permission to marry their daughter. Now divorced from his wife, he cannot remarry until he has fully settled his loan.
The 34-year-old government employee conceded that he blindly agreed to pay the dowry that went in part to the lavish wedding held at a five-star hotel and a traditional celebration called ‘julwa’. His dire financial straits could have contributed to the collapse of his marriage, he said.
Men with less financial means are forced to turn to their poorer neigbouring countries in the Arabian Peninsula in search of women to marry and whose families will not exact high dowries from them. These include Iran, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Bahraini national Ahmed Juma, 44, was forced to travel to Iran to look for a potential wife after three Bahraini women nixed his offer of marriage because he could not afford their expected dowries. There he finally met his wife.
“I paid less than 5,000 U.S. dollars, which covered my trip, the dowry and the wedding,” he told IPS. There were no extravagant wedding rites, just a simple dinner to introduce his bride to family members.
A report by the Yemeni Justice Ministry released early this year cited Bahrain as the country with the third highest number of males marrying Yemenis in 2009, with 71. Saudi Arabia ranked first, with 414, and the United Arab Emirates second, with 230.
In richer states like Saudi Arabia, a more worrisome trend, sources say, is that fathers treat their daughters like commodities that could be sold for profit by expecting exorbitant dowries even amid the economic crunch.
Dr Ghazi bin Abdulaziz Al Shimiri, head of the Family Solidarity Panel, a social group arranging marriages free of charge, was quoted by a Saudi Arabia- based newspaper ‘Al Youm’ in March as saying that some 2,000 girls in their 20s and 30s had registered with them as potential brides.
Information about those girls is presented in the Panel’s registry, which is accessible to male members looking for someone to marry. Once a match between a male and a female member is made, the group looks for companies or businesspeople willing to sponsor their wedding. In some cases, they also shoulder the dowry. In others, the groom takes care of the dowry while the sponsor shoulders the wedding expenses.
To help cut wedding costs and men to marry without being hounded or harassed on the issue of dowry, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have been promoting mass weddings. Sources said that mass weddings started in the early ‘90s as a means to deal with steadily increasing weddings expenses.
Others have resorted to seemingly unconventional means to deal with the contentious issue of dowry. Ali Al Ahbabi, a father of ten girls in the UAE, decided to marry off all his daughters without demanding payment of any kind or lavish weddings from his future sons-in-law.
The ‘Al Atihad’ daily, in its Apr. 7 issue, quoted Al Ahbabi as saying that he was only following Islamic regulations requiring low dowries.
Whether such practices will increasingly hold sway in societies that have been steeped in what has otherwise become tradition remains to be seen.
Based on the latest annual report of Bahrain’s Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, a total of 4,679 marriages were registered in 2009, in which the grooms still bore the concomitant financial burdens, including huge dowries.
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