Doha, Qatar - The Gulf state of Qatar is among the wealthiest countries in the world. But despite the affluence, increasingly extravagant weddings in Qatar are making it difficult for men, who pay for the celebrations, to foot the bill.
Jamal Qassim said he spent 450,000 Qatari riyals ($123,600) on his wedding. He worked and saved for nine years to pay for it. "I didn't even travel once outside of Qatar. I was saving and saving. I didn't buy myself a fancy car." He said he now regrets paying that much. At the end of 2012, he was in the process of getting a divorce.
Marriage rates in Qatar have declined markedly over the last three years, which Qatar government statistics attribute to the high cost of marriage, as well as the advancing educational status of women and their rising participation in the work force.
Figures also show Qatari women are having their first child at a later age and having fewer children overall. Divorce rates have risen since 2001. And local press reports say a quarter of marriageable Qatari women remain single. These are worrying trends for a country where nationals are already heavily outnumbered by migrants.
Young women "cannot make a small wedding because they are afraid that other people will think that they are poor or something".
- Jamal Qassim, divorcee
Accordingly, Qatar has been taking measures to ensure "the continuity of cohesive families and large households", which it sees as "crucial to the national vision", according to Qatar's National Development Strategy Report. As part of that strategy, last week Qatar Charity launched Zawaj, a marriage programme, which will offer pre-marital counselling and financial assistance to Qatari couples.
The couples may also be provided with free wedding tents "in a bid to reduce marriage expenses and help preserve the institution of marriage", according to Qatar's national news agency.
The moves by Qatar Charity to reach out to prospective couples follow those of the Qatari government, which decided late last year to begin construction of a number of wedding halls to bring down the costs of getting married. They will be free for Qataris to use.
Small weddings 'not an option'
The halls will give Qataris more options to control the prices of weddings, said Hassan Al-Ibrahim, a Qatari commentator. Qatar is a small country where the nationals all know each other, he noted. "People are expecting you to invite them to your wedding. They are expecting you to invite them to your brother's wedding or your sister's wedding ... It is not an option to say, 'I want to have a small wedding.' Because if you wanted to have a small wedding, people might be insulted."
Qassim said his bride-to-be's family "kept insisting on a big wedding, and when I tried to make it between families, they threatened to cancel the wedding", after he had already sent out a few invitations.
Traditional weddings are expensive, and have become more so due to inflation and the growing consumer culture in Qatar. Due to a limited number of wedding halls, renting one costs roughly 30,000-150,000 riyals ($8,240-$41,200). Qatari men are also expected to give their brides-to-be a marriage gift, or mahr, which is usually accompanied by jewelry. The groom must foot the bills for two wedding celebrations, his and his wife's, as the parties are gender-segregated affairs.
|A wedding at Emirates Palace, UAE [Olivier Dolz/Al Jazeera]
Banks in Qatar even make marriage loans available for nationals - Doha Bank, for instance, offers "attractive" interest rates with a repayment period of up to 60 months. Banks in other Gulf countries have similar loans.
For middle- and lower-class Qatari men, getting married can mean incurring debt, which can strain a marriage before it even begins. The men's wedding ceremonies are often very affordable, said Fadi Attieh of La Noce, a wedding and events company in Doha. The men greet each other, eat and leave. There is often little entertainment. But the women's weddings, Attieh explained, are often held to show how much more "Disney-like, crazy, something out of a dream wedding" it can be.
The women's ceremonies can cost anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 Qatari riyals ($10,987 to $27,466), with average weddings starting at 100,000 and rising to 250,000 ($68,666), according to an informal study in 2006 on Qatari marriages. Prices are likely to have risen since then, with the largest weddings now costing into the millions of riyals.
For the costs of nuptials in Qatar to be lower, female weddings would need to be more modest, said Attieh, who last year travelled to Milan to place a special order for a wedding. For another marriage reception, the hall was reserved six days in advance to prepare for the setup.
Soon-to-be-divorced Qassim agreed, saying young women "cannot make a small wedding because they are afraid that other people will think that they are poor or something".
The trend is not unique to Qatar. A 2012 survey by the United Arab Emirates Marriage Fund found that 87 percent of respondents blamed the high costs of marriage for low marriage rates in the UAE. As in Qatar, divorce rates in the Emirates are up - in Dubai, it increased by 25.6 percent last year, according to the Dubai Statistics Center.
For more than 20 years, the UAE has been trying to tackle the issue: for instance, in 1992 a marriage fund was launched to help nationals get married to other Emiratis. Given the high costs of weddings, Emirati men often married non-nationals because of the lower costs. In 2012, the fund gave grants amounting to $3.32m to more than 3,300 citizens and organised five mass weddings for 224 grooms.
"Sadly, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight and the [wedding] competition goes on", said Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. But given the new wealth in the region and the limited number of celebrations without strict "religious overtones" and "dos and don'ts", she explained, it is understandable that people enjoy such affairs.
Olivier Dolz, a wedding planner in the Emirates, said he spent a few million dirhams on a royal wedding in Abu Dhabi. The affair took three months of preparation, 72 hours on-site setting everything up and 150 to 200 people on the ground to pull it all off. "The wedding is 600 [to] 4,000 people, then you have flowers, extravagance, you have singers." For a wedding in Dubai, the budget for the entertainment alone was several million dirhams for six performers.
Four young, attractive and yet-to-be-married Qatari girls told Al Jazeera they consider weddings to be a "once-in-a-lifetime" event, and they want theirs to be special.
One of the girls, Aziza, said coming from a large family means that a large wedding is required. She estimated that on her mother's side of the family, she would probably need to invite at least 100 relatives, and about 250 on her father's side.
However, the four said they would value the man they are marrying over the extravagance of the parties. "I just want to have a happy ending," Aisha said.