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The “Marriage Problem” in the Arab World

Several patterns in Arab society explain the trends in marriage and singlehood.

MagHoxpox via Wikimedia Commons
United Arab Emirates Population Pyramid
Source: MagHoxpox via Wikimedia Commons

The age of singlehood is spreading to the Arab world. A particularly interesting case that demonstrates this is the emergence of singlehood in a conservative society, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In the UAE, more than 60 percent of women over the age of 30 are single, up from only 20 percent just 20 years earlier [1]. The trend of getting married later or not getting married at all was already apparent in the 1980s when Emirati men, in seeking to avoid paying the lavish dowries typical in Emirati marriage arrangements, sought brides from abroad or did not marry at all [2]. This phenomenon has only worsened due to the gender imbalance in the nation, as seen in the figure above.

The phenomena of marrying non-nationals and delaying marriage led to a presidential decree that established a government fund to encourage marriage. A male citizen marrying an Emirati woman is today eligible for a grant with almost no repayment responsibilities, and additional benefits for each child born. While 32,000 families benefited from this grant in the first ten years of the program, the aforementioned marriage statistics seem to suggest that it has been ineffective in staving off the move toward singledom.

Several patterns in Arab society have been used to explain the trends in marriage and singledom in the UAE. Drawing on a data set of college students at a Western-style university in the UAE, Wang and Kassam [3] were able to identify changes in Emirati society indicating that the increased number of singles in the UAE is coupled with changing attitudes toward gender relations and traditional gender roles.

When surveyed about attitudes regarding love, marriage, family, polygamy, family size, and women’s role in the workplace, Emirati students, a group that is relatively more traditional than foreign students and expatriates, indicated at least some views that digress from traditional cultural and familial values, particularly in comparison to Emiratis that did not attend college. Education was tied with career-driven life goals, individualism, and self-reliance. All of these factors are known to relate to the rise of singlehood.

While this study did not directly investigate the causal relationship between attitudes towards relationships and college attendance, the exposure to alternative information at college and to a more diverse population may explain the variation. Given the rise in college attendance, if higher education has this effect on individuals, it is expected to increase in magnitude.

While the UAE was taken here as an example, these trends are common to Arab states across the Gulf, with projects and initiatives similar to the UAE Marriage Fund failing to prevent the move toward singledom in Bahrain, Saudia Arabia, and Qatar [2]. Similarly, marriage rates continue to sharply drop across North Africa [4].

Given these trends across the Arab world, it would seem that the move toward singledom is driven by cross-regional or, indeed, global forces. This is hardly surprising in the era of increased globalization, yet it is not clear how globalization affects relationship choices across developing and developed countries, or what causes the increase in singledom under globalization.

While the research across Asia and the Middle East largely focuses on single-person households, declining marriage rates [5], or delayed marriage [6, 7] as contributors to the singledom phenomenon, this pattern is far from homogeneous [8].

To what extent is the increasing proportion of the Arab population leading single lives due to a deterioration of the status of marriage in society, and to what extent can this trend be associated with a proclivity for independence?

The evidence presented so far would indicate that the increase in the number of singles is a combination of a variety of factors. Much research is needed in isolating the different mechanisms. I will continue discussing these trends in future posts.

Elyakim Kislev is the author of Happy Singlehood and Relationships 5.0.


1. UAE Interact, Marriage Fund Report. 2015, Ministry of Information and Culture: UAE.

2. Rashad, H., M. Osman, and F. Roudi-Fahimi, Marriage in the Arab world. 2005: Population reference bureau (PRB).

3. Wang, Y. and M. Kassam, Indicators of Social Change in the UAE: College Students’ Attitudes Toward Love, Marriage and Family. Journal of Arabian Studies, 2016. 6(1): p. 74-94.

4. Puschmann, P. and K. Matthijs, The Demographic Transition in the Arab World: The Dual Role of Marriage in Family Dynamics and Population Growth. Population Change in Europe, the Middle-East and North Africa: Beyond the Demographic Divide, 2016: p. 119.

5. Trost, J., The social institution of marriage. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 2010: p. 507-514.

6. Jones, G.W., Delayed marriage and very low fertility in Pacific Asia. Population and Development Review, 2007. 33(3): p. 453-478.

7. Jones, G.W., The" flight from marriage" in south-east and east Asia. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 2005: p. 93-119.

8. Yu, Y. Declining Marriage Rates Under Globalization: Homogeneity Or Heterogeneity? in XVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology (July 13-19, 2014). 2014. Isaconf.

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