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Divorce and Family Disorganization in the UAE


“The Gulf societies have been undergoing radical changes since the end of the 1970s. The Arab Gulf family is passing through a fast transition that affects its functions, roles, authority, and structure. One must start with a preliminary hypothesis that reviews the Arab Gulf family as a basic unit that extends its cultural components from Arab Islamic sources, and as an economic unit that performs several economic roles to the benefit of its members and of society; and as a social unit where social interactions between family members occur within the context of social relations set by values and norms of their culture.” (El-Haddad, 2003)

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The above statement is perhaps the strongest pointer so far of the problem that exists in families in the UAE and other Arab countries. The family remains the most basic and most important institution in societies. In the United Arab Emirates, there has been a conflict in families and the whole society in general between tradition and modernity. As many families in these Arabic countries try to uphold Muslim values and traditions, a globalization-a direct result of interacting with the rest of the world through communication and physical contact has caught up with them with lifestyles that do not agree with traditional values. Issues like women’s rights are arising in these societies. With the lack of appropriate modifications in the way of life by the whole society in these countries, many problems within the family are arising. This includes an increase in the rate of divorce cases. In this paper, I will look at the problems faced by families living in the UAE including divorce. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

The nature of the family setting in the UAE

To understand the problems of UAE families well, we need to look at how modernity affects families in these places. Let us first look at the Impact of urbanization. There is no doubt that rural to urban migration has radically changed the family setting in the UAE. This migration mainly occurred as a direct result of the discovery of oil in these countries. This migration rate has been very high to the extent that currently as much as an average of about 75 percent of the population in the UAE lives in urban areas. This brought about the interaction of the population with the capitalistic western society. This migration exposed the societies to technological, financial, and social influence hence transforming these societies in the process. The idea of interacting and forming part of a community something that existed in rural areas became difficult to reciprocate in urban areas. People became increasingly separated from their community as they adopted the urban lifestyle to live isolated lives. Houses in urban areas did not form part of the community in contrast to dwelling areas in rural settings. A problem that has been increasingly faced by the family is that of adapting to the new lifestyle in urban settings. For example, let us consider how family interactions are affected by rural to urban migration. At first, a new family that has migrated into an urban dwelling would try to maintain social relations at home as well as maintain good interactions with their neighbors. The reality that this is not possible however sets in and the family is gradually adopted into the urban lifestyle. This process is not made easier at all considering that there are no structures at all to help in the integration of families into the urban lifestyle. This could be through instruments like education and the mass media. (El-Haddad, 2003)

What has changed over the years

There have also been changes in the functions of the family in the UAE. In place of services that were provided traditionally, states are now providing public services. The family has therefore been relieved from some of the functions that it provided earlier. Many families have accepted at least basic education for their children something that has increasingly become a new role of the family. When children are taken to school, the school environment influences them. This influence can be dangerous especially at the adolescent stage. For the girl child, their lives have significantly changed regarding education. The girl has presented an opportunity to consider several alternatives that could include pursuing a career instead of marriage alone. New forms of communication like through the internet have enabled children and young people to interact with their peers from all parts of the world. Their outlook on many issues is therefore bound to change as a result of this. This can significantly change how these children interact with their families causing conflicts in the family. For example, parents may have to deal with children who are less conserved unlike children in the traditional society and ones that do not uphold values that are thought to be important to the traditions of the society like modes of dressing. Education has therefore brought about conflicts between children and their families in general. Differences in values held by different generations of people exist and are bound to increase. This creates a complex mode of social interaction and one that can easily degenerate into conflicts. (El-Haddad, 2003)

A relationship among family members is further complicated by the reliance on foreign babysitters by most UAE families. This is of significant influence to UAE families because people at a very young age are involved as they interact with these babysitters. To some level, this kind of phenomenon can be justified on the ground that it gives many women a chance to pursue other activities like education and work. However as always explained, children are most affected when they don’t spend adequate time with their parents especially their mothers. This can be observed later in the behavior of the child who may show rebellion later in life to gain attention that was denied to them while young. An interview carried out in Qatar showed that as much as 85 percent of women in this country prefer foreign domestic servants. This is in sharp contrast with the number of working women in this country who are far much less. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

This shows that most women in UAE would like the services of foreign babysitters although a very small number are working hence career and education cannot be said to be the reason behind the hiring of foreign domestic servants. Moreover, there have been issues on how UAE families, in general, treat foreign domestic servants. Many people have complained of violence, sexual harassment among other ills at the hands of these families. This introduces many problems in families as a result including the straining of relationships between family members who may have differing opinions on the welfare of these babysitters. It is important to note that a good majority of these babysitters are people from poor nations who have been forced by circumstances to look for these jobs and ones that do not necessarily share the same beliefs and values as people in the UAE. Besides, children at a young age do not understand relationships well although they can be easily guided by their parents. This is even complicated by the fact that most babysitters and foreign servants have not been trained for their jobs. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

A problem that may lead to the development of a non-desirable character may arise as these children learn to be rude to the babysitters who may react by either remaining quiet about these. This further develops the bad character or may react in other ways that would interfere with the self-esteem of the child. There is even an increasing worry about the impact that foreign servants are having on UAE families. This is basically because of the relationships that these foreign servants establish with the young people in gulf countries. Apart from the values of these young people becoming compromised, it is argued that there is a danger of these young people marrying from other countries leaving women in their countries single. This is a problem of social status rather than necessity. For families in the UAE, the acquisition of material things has become the new symbol of wealth and status. This is exhibited in luxurious buildings, expensive cars, and many servants representing social status. People are thus obtaining servants and goods mainly to show off rather than out of necessity. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

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A problem that is increasing in intensity in the United Arab Emirates is that concerning old people. In the traditional community, getting old meant that the social status of someone increased. It also meant an increase in authority where they held important positions in the clan and made important decisions. It meant an increase in wealth and respect, respect that was accorded to the old by young people. This has however changed drastically as the society has become more individualistic as people live isolated lives in the urban areas as compared to the communal society that existed before in the rural setting. Unlike developed countries, these communities have not put mechanisms in place to take care of the elderly, where we have homes for the elderly and retirement plans something that is causing considerable suffering for the elderly. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

Although the elderly still form part of the family in the UAE, the fact that their roles have been reversed, their position changed and the increased gap in their capacity to interact with the community is causing emotional and Physiological suffering to them. They have also lost their status and respect in society and have to endure the more liberal young persons influenced by modernity that no longer accords them respect to the levels that they had experienced in the past. They may also feel the pain to see the values of the society that were greatly cherished in the past erode under the influence of modernity with no power on their hands to make any difference. This among other factors is causing great emotional and physiological pain to the elderly in the UAE societies. Even if they were to integrate into the urban societies, it would prove a difficult feat to achieve for the elderly since values and ways of life in these dwellings are not just contradictory to them, they are also way out of their capacity to comprehend. For example, they may not be able to communicate in languages like English or be able to use communication means like the internet. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

Moreover, the elderly in the UAE society has also had to endure physical pain and suffering. These now have to live with new diseases that were not experienced in the past like senility for example. They are not able to live normal lives since they may not have anyone to take care of them helping them to move around, eat, among other things that are required for them to live normally. There is also no specialized health care for the elderly in UAE something that is in contrast with some countries in the western world where special treatment and care is provided for the elderly. New treatment methods have seen a sharp increase in life expectancy meaning that people are living more years than they lived in the past. This further compounds the problems experienced by the elderly who are significantly increasing in numbers. The effect of an increase in birth rate will also see these societies have more people that are elderly in the future. This will create a need for these societies to embrace methods that would sufficiently take care of elderly needs. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

There have also been changes in the roles of individuals in the family. The role of the mother for example has changed. With education, she has become more liberal with more responsibility in decision-making. For children, they have also become more liberal as they are allowed to make independent decisions. The power of the old generation in guiding society has been weakened in the process. Significant in these changes is that the social status of the woman has greatly risen assigning her new roles in decision making and other things that they were not allowed to do beforehand. This also creates a complex social relationship. Men may be forced to adapt to these changes as they are required to recognize a woman in her new social status. This may not genuinely be possible considering that having been brought up in traditional values, the older beliefs about the woman are still ingrained in the minds of these men creating an internal as well as external conflict that would be evident in the interaction behavior. This kind of internal and external conflict may also be experienced by women as they face a dilemma of accepting their new status in society. It is however important to remember that the picture of a veiled woman with no rights is still much of a reality in these societies where women have been greatly denied their rights as equal partners. The process of liberating the woman in the UAE has still a very long way to go. A problem that is thus created in this kind of scenario is where the society tries to live with traditional values about the woman and the family as well as try to embrace modernization. For example, there is a general tendency nowadays for the woman to choose a spouse outside her tribe. This is however difficult to achieve since several factors do not present such a woman with an opportunity to do so. (Rashad, Osman, & Roudi-Fahimi, 2005)

The rate of divorce is increasing

Concerning marriage, there have been several transformations that have taken place in UAE and other Arabic countries in general. Instead of primarily arranged marriages, many young people are first being acquainted before they seek their parents’ blessings for marriage. A significant transformation has been in the age at which women are married. While it was between 15-19 years in the past decades, many women are now getting married above the age of 19 years. Other changes have been in the rise of marriages that practice the romantic type of love and marriages across different religious sects. A significant phenomenon that is however occurring at increasing rates is the significant rise in divorce cases. This is happening with an increasing right of the woman in decision making as well as playing a role in meeting financial demands. Initially, it was men who set up all the conditions for a marriage contract. (Rashad, Osman, & Roudi-Fahimi, 2005)

This is however changing with the woman having a say in the marriage contract. As a result, some women ask for a right to pursue a divorce in case their husband goes ahead to marry another wife. Marriage is no longer the certificate of full initiation into society. Other parameters like educational attainment and wealth are more significant in integrating into society. Many people are also delaying marriage because of the burdens that it can impose on an individual. These burdens would prevent a person from attaining education and personal actualization in general. These have led to an increase in divorce cases, which can be explained by a conflict between traditional family values and modern values concerning the institution of marriage. To understand this better, I will first look at the structure of divorce in the UAE. (Rashad, Osman, & Roudi-Fahimi, 2005)

Divorce cases are normally determined by Sharia courts. A requirement for applying for a divorce is that one needs to be in a sound mind and should be able to make decisions independently. The first step in obtaining a divorce is the registration of the case at the Moral and Family guidance section at Sharia courts. Following this step, the family is assigned a counselor who would try to guide the family through three months of trying to reconcile the couples. If this fails to reconcile the couples, they would undergo a proceeding session before a judge who would then determine the outcome of the case. After the court has determined that a divorce should occur, a man can even divorce his wife through a mobile short message service. Other methods of technology like divorce through a telephone conversation or an e-mail can also be employed. Moreover, a man is also allowed to use any of these methods to divorce his wife after which he will be required to present the case before a Sharia court for consideration. He would also be required to acknowledge that he has used any of the mentioned means for the divorce case to be considered. For a Muslim man, he is allowed to divorce his wife by uttering the following words three times, “I divorce you”. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

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Although there is no official data to provide accurate information on the rates of divorce in the UAE, a general observation is that these cases have been rising in the recent past. Several factors have led to an increase in the rate of divorce cases in these countries. One major factor contributing to high divorce cases in the UAE is the limited chance given to couples to know and acquaint with each other before marrying or even after marriage. Most societies in the UAE and the Muslim world, in general, are extremely conservative societies. This limits the chances of people looking for partners on their own. The parents, uncles, aunts, and other relatives, therefore, arrange most marriages. Two people with very different backgrounds are therefore compelled to stay together in marriage, Conflicts are likely to dominate this kind of marriage leading to divorce in the end. It is important to note that divorce among people who get married through traditional means is much lower in Bahrain and Kuwait as compared to other UAE countries. This may be because of transformations brought about by modernization in these places. There has seen a large-scale interaction of people in these two countries with the west. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

Wrong perceptions on marriage that are fuelling these divorces

Another cause of the high divorce cases in the UAE is because there are no longer mechanisms required to monitor people including the institutions of marriage as they existed before. Because of rapid urbanization in the UAE, many people are living isolated lives in urban places with no one to authoritatively monitor their behaviors as society has become more liberal. These get a chance to meet spouses who may be their neighbors or college mates. Such relationships could lead to marriages although the two have not even known each other for a long time. Moreover, young people in urban areas may not have a chance of getting advice from relatives on who they are marrying creating a vulnerable platform for future breakups. Urbanization has also led to the creation of large shopping malls, shopping centers, and other population-concentrated areas. This has given young people a chance to interact in these kinds of environments like in coffee shops for example. It is argued that this kind of setting does not present people with a good opportunity of knowing each other well enough including someone’s background among other requirements that are necessary for one to understand one well enough for marriage. Youthful ‘hype’ could be the main driving force for marriage in these kinds of situations. This cannot last into marriage. (El-Haddad, 2003)

Besides, although this has slightly changed, many people are still getting married at a young age. Many people in these countries are wealthy hence financial constraints are not a hindrance to marrying. This creates a problem because such young people may not have the maturity level desired to hold a marriage together and resolve conflicts. This is especially true considering the effects of modernization which have placed enormous responsibilities on both the husband and the wife, responsibilities that require wisdom, experience, and some maturity. These people may have carried out due to pressure from their families and the society rather than from their own decision. These come to learn later that they were not ready for marriage after they have already entered into the marriage contract. This often leads to divorce. (El-Haddad, 2003)

Another factor that is causing problems in marriages and leading to high divorce rates in the UAE is the conflict between traditional values and modern values. While the society in the UAE can not be said to have fully transitioned from traditional to modernity, there exists a great conflict between these two values. For example, a married woman may find herself pursuing an identity that liberates her more and gives her more say in decision-making matters among other things. This may be in contrast to what her husband expects of her to be more reserved and ready to be commanded. This creates conflicts within the family that are bound to ultimately lead to a divorce. More of such conflicts that arise from a difference in traditions and modernity are experienced in other ways. The result is however the same- it leads to conflicts in the marriage with a possibility of separation and divorce. Although many people in the UAE are embracing western culture, this kind of culture is missing critical links that are necessary for it to be fully integrated into these societies. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

The western culture has in itself a problem of divorce, as people feel liberal with the freedom to pursue what they think is best for them. Cultural values that have been aped by people in the UAE like the freedom of doing what they think is good for them without feeling the pressure of the traditional society is causing many people to have divorce more easily. Added to what I can describe as an “easy mechanism” for divorce that has been created by this society where someone can even divorce his wife by just uttering the words “I divorce you” three times, and even more explosive situation is created. It is important to understand that this kind of divorce mechanism was created in the traditional setting which no longer exists in this society. Other modern ideals like the initiation into society through the attainment of education among other parameters apart from marriage has also eroded the significance of marriage in society. Marriage can therefore be treated casually unlike in the past. Moreover, a more liberated woman assisting in the provision of financial needs may take roles in the family previously held by the man something that would make the man feel intimidated. This may cause him to retaliate through physical (among other means that he believes would guard his ‘dignity’) abuse among other unorthodox methods that would inevitably create dangerous conflicts and violence in the family allowing for easier separation through a divorce. (Al Jandaly, n.d.)

Like many other societies, many young people in the UAE have expectations on marriage that are not realistic and practical. A lot of energy is focused on the wedding instead of focusing on how the two would need to share life when the realities of marriage including its pressures set in. The two are caught unawares and are thus unable to react appropriately since they had not prepared for this. This is also bound to bring conflicts in the family leading to divorce. A big problem in these societies is that many people may still have the traditional expectation of a marriage, which has been overtaken by modern dynamics. Others would have a model of marriage similar to what their parents had. This is also inapplicable in the current circumstances in a dynamic society and a society that is increasingly making steps in the reverse direction as regards society values because of aping modern ways of life. Muslims have values that greatly abhor immorality with very heavy penalties on those caught in such activities. This can create a complicated situation for young people who may rush into marriage for sexual fulfillment alone. This would give them a chance to avoid harsh punishments by the dreaded sharia laws that could otherwise land on them in case they involve in sexual activities outside marriage. This again is not a good enough reason for people to get married since marriage includes many other things that should be considered. (Rashad, Osman, & Roudi-Fahimi, 2005).


The family in the United Arab Emirates has been feeling the changes that have been rapidly incorporated into their societies at such a high rate that there has not been enough time or an opportunity to adjust and adapt to these changes. A conflict of traditional and modern lifestyles has therefore been created causing many sufferings to the family including a significant increase in divorce rates. Although this phenomenon was unheard of, it is now a common thing in these societies and the rate is increasing. Analyzing and understanding the state and cause of issues that are affecting UAE societies is critical in planning for a better society in these areas.


Al Jandaly, B. (n.d.). Divorce in the united Arab Emirates. 2010. web.

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El-Haddad, Y. (2003).Major trends affecting families in the Gulf countries. Web.

Rashad, H, Osman, M, &roudi-Fahimi, F. (2005).Marriage in the Arab world. Web.

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