Yemen is being flooded with counterterrorism dollars, but is its faltering economy a greater danger than terrorism?
|In Yemen’s largest mass wedding to date, 1,600 grooms filled a sports hall in the capital [Credit: Oliver Holmes]|
As is customary in Yemen’s highly conservative culture, Muhammed al-Khouja has never met his fiancée. The couple have been engaged for almost two years and set multiple wedding dates, but every time the day draws near, the wedding is delayed. Yemen is full of single young men like Muhammed who cannot afford to marry.
Weddings are pricey in Yemen – bachelors have to pay their fiancée’s family to marry their daughter. The groom and his father split the cost of a dowry to the bride’s father, normally around $5,000, and the family of the groom is also expected to pay for the wedding expenses.
In the capital Sana’a, this means renting a giant beige tent, filling it with cushions, hiring a local band, covering the surrounding alleyways in light bulbs and blaring music out of colossal speakers fixed to street lamps for three days.
Until recently, the groom’s side also paid for sizeable lamb lunches and the guests’ qat, a mildly narcotic leaf chewed during afternoons and especially at weddings, but it is now generally acknowledged that these are unreasonable additional expenses.
In March, Muhammed’s father told him that to cut costs, Muhammed would get married jointly with his three brothers, a growing trend in Yemen, the poorest of all the Arab states. Now the idea has been taken a step further and a new breed of ceremony has emerged out of hardship – mass weddings ranging from 10 to more than 1,500 couples.
Last month, in Yemen’s largest mass wedding to date, 1,600 couples tied the knot. The grooms filled a sports hall in the capital, each dressed in traditional flowing robes, with black and green scarves wrapped around their heads and holding long, curved golden swords.
In Yemen, weddings are a single-sex affair and the brides had their own separate parties at home. The couples were to meet later that night, many for the first time.
The event was organised by the Orphans Charitable Organisation and sponsored by Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, a brother of the Saudi sovereign.
“All the grooms are orphans,” organiser Abdul Rajeh explained. “Orphans have a really hard time getting married as they don’t have the financial support of a father to help them with the dowry.”
The festivities included a morning of dancing, poetry and short comedic plays and the front few rows of seats were filled with Saudi dignitaries with a sea of the grooms’ black and green headscarves behind them. Even leading Yemeni Islamic scholar Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani attended, a man the US has labelled a “specifically designated global terrorist”.
Spirits were high and the grooms unsheathed their swords and danced with them above their heads for some of the more popular songs. Verses of the Quran were read and VIP guests delivered long speeches filled with accolades to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is also Yemen’s biggest funder of Islamic institutions and analysts say Saudi Arabia’s philanthropic work here is part of a wider scheme to exert influence in the Arabian Peninsula.
In addition to funding the event, Prince Aziz donated a generous sum of 200,000 Yemeni Rials ($900) to each groom as a contribution to his dowry.
“By funding our wedding and helping us with the dowry, Prince Aziz is showing us that he is the father of Yemen’s orphans,” said 25-year-old groom Abdul Ghani at the wedding feast. After the morning’s entertainment, the grooms were bused over to a hall on the other side of the capital to enjoy a lunch of tender lamb, soft Yemeni bread drenched in spicy yogurt and sweet pomegranates.
The donation will only cover a fifth of the cost of the dowry Abdul Ghani will have to pay, but he says the money helps. “I’ve been dreaming of marriage since I was a boy. This is the happiest day of my life, we are all so happy,” he said.
Mass weddings are not only a Yemeni phenomenon. Iran has hosted mass weddings since the mid-1990s, in part to aid the poor and in part to prevent young people from marrying late, fearing premarital sex.
In South Korea, controversial Unification Church founder and self-proclaimed “Messiah” Reverend Sun Myung Moon has married tens of thousands of young couples from around the globe.
But mass weddings in Yemen are a cultural craze. As in Iran, there is a fear among Yemenis that if a man cannot afford to marry he will look for sex elsewhere. In much of the country, friendship with a woman before marriage is considered shameful and worried parents endeavour to marry off their sons and daughters as fast as possible.
There is no stigma attached to marrying en-mass and local charities, the government, tribal sheikhs and the military have started organising weddings.
Even private companies have jumped on the bandwagon in a bizarre gesture of corporate social responsibility.
A corporate wedding
MTN, a South Africa-based telecommunications company that operates mobile phone networks in Yemen, has organised an annual mass wedding for its local Yemeni staff for the past few years. At the most recent ceremony, 30 colleagues were married simultaneously.
A senior development manager at MTN Yemen said that the aim of the wedding was to “make employees loyal to the company and to raise morale”.
Yellow posters baring the MTN logo covered the walls of the hall and an MTN jingle from a TV advertisement would occasionally blast out of the speakers. At one point during the ceremony, the CEO of MTN in Yemen appeared on televisions positioned around the room and talked at length about how MTN is “allowing its employees to settle down”.
But at this corporate wedding, the grooms make relatively decent salaries and are not trapped into single life like many of those at Yemen’s charity-organised weddings.
“This is not my real wedding day,” whispered one of the grooms, adding with a smile: “I’ll be married in a couple months, this is just a good party.”