Getting married in Dubai or Abu Dhabi can be a tall order and difficult to arrange - but it is very different to a UAE National getting married. The following is a personal account written by non-emirati attending an Emirati wedding.
As well as being glamorous occasions, wedding ceremonies in the Emirati tradition can be a lovely cultural experience for the outsider. In most eastern countries, wedding celebrations usually last for a week and the run up to the wedding week can be both exciting and tiring for the bride. Arab women regardless of getting married or not, always take pride in their appearance even if, for most part of the day they are covered with their abayas (cloak) and shelas (headscarf). Regular trips to the salon will include treatments for the face and body and trials on hair and makeup. The bride is also well looked after by her family and encouraged to eat the right foods and maintain a good weight.
During the wedding week, gatherings can take place at both the bride and groom’s relatives’ places. However it is uncommon for both families to socialize together before the big day. The prelude of the wedding celebration for the bride is the Ladies or Henna Party traditionally called Laylat al Henna. Here, all the bride’s female relatives and friends are invited to an evening of music, dancing and sumptuous food and of course henna. This usually takes place a day or two before the actual wedding day and is normally held at the bride’s parents home. Most emirati females and muslim females who attend are normally very excited as it is a chance for them to really dress up and show their friends their latest outfits. At the Ladies party, the bride enters after all the female guests have arrived. Her arrival is marked with loud instruments such as drums, shakers, tambourines beating in unison and girls making a strange cheering noise with their hand cupped over their mouths. The bride is brought in with a close family member i.e. her sister or female cousin and may be covered with a beautiful cloth. Once in the middle of the room, her cloth is removed and she starts dancing with the crowd. A band will start singing and playing music and the atmosphere is just energetic. After a few minutes she is taken to her corner and seated on beautiful cushions and throws. At this point, family members in turn go to the bride and bless her and may sometimes give gifts of jewelry and money. Photos are also taken. The henna artist begins to decorate the bride’s hands up till the elbow and the entire feet. The henna appears black brown and will dry after a couple of hours, however the bride cannot remove the henna until the next morning as it is believed the longer it is kept the darker the colour will turn out. Another henna tale is said to believe the darker the henna is on the bride’s skin the more her new mother in law likes her! During the bride’s henna application, guests take pictures with the bride and start eating followed by more dancing and loud music before ending the night.
The Nikah which is the official religious ceremony takes place first, attended only by family. Emirati wedding receptions are almost always segregated for men and women. They can be held at one of the custom built wedding halls or at an expensive hotel. The wedding halls are designed in such a way that two halls of the same size can accommodate an equal amount of men and women in each. Sometimes a big screen is used in the ladies hall to display the ceremony taking place in the men’s hall. Because the women may not wear abaya and shela, filming of the festivities in the ladies hall is not permitted. During a wedding function, wearing abaya and shela is for non family members. Some family members may omit wearing shela for this special occasion but wear it when male guests enter their part of the hall. Female guests greet each other by kissing one side of the cheek 4 times and make their way to a table. In some weddings, a table plan may be drawn up but most weddings are free seating. Starters consisting of traditional Arabic food are served such as olives, hummous, tabbouleh, salad and bread. The bride enters. The usual tradition is for the bride to enter on her own with a member of her family and her husband enters later on. However, some weddings have changed custom and bride can enter together with husband. This part of the ceremony will be video recorded therefore shelas are worn but not the bride if she wishes. The husband will drop his bride to the front stage, sits for photographs and then leaves to his hall. At this point, ladies from the bride’s family greet the bride and music begins. The ladies all start dancing in their lavish colourful attire. Female friends can also join in the dancing or dance around the tables. After some time, an announcement is made that the groom will be entering with his male family members. Female guests who wish to cover themselves do this now. A loud procession of males playing instruments such as customary drums enter, the groom is in the middle and beside him his immediate family members all carrying traditional sticks which they dance with. The sticks were also historically used as a means of defense. The whole procession sequence looks impressive and well timed. At this point the bride is instructed to cover her hair and pictures are taken. After the photos, men leave quietly and the ladies party resumes with music and dinner being served.
This was set up in 1992 by His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nayan to control spending on wedding celebrations. According to a leading exhibition company the average cost of a wedding in the UAE can amount to DHS300,000 which is just over $81,000. Additionally UAE’s rapid economic growth has led to pressure of giving large dowries which in turn has discouraged many UAE national men to marry emirati women and seek non- emirati wives. This is of concern to the government as children are being born to mothers not well integrated into traditional UAE life. The fund provides from DHS60,000 – 100,000 depending on an individual’s salary situation. An individual earning a good salary may not receive the full grant. The UAE government has also built special wedding halls to avoid expensive hotel costs. The Board of Directors for the Marriage Fund states that the Groom must reach a minimum age of 21 and the Bride, 18 in order for the young to marry at a suitable age. Additionally, funding priority is given to older couples in order for them to financially afford starting a family soon.