By Rob L. Wagner
27 November 2016
Jeddah – One-quarter of Saudis of marriage age are single, the General Authority for Statistics for 2016 said. The trend in the increase in the number of unmarried men and women over the age of 15 has prompted the Saudi government to implement policies to encourage marriage but it has met with little success.
The government estimates that 5.26 million Saudis are single. Perhaps the most startling statistic from the authority’s demographic survey is that 3 million men over the age of 15 are single, exceeding the number of unmarried women. The population of Saudis in the kingdom is estimated at 21.1 million. About 8 million foreigners work in Saudi Arabia and they were not included in the survey.
Potential Saudi brides and grooms generally point to high dowries demanded by the brides’ families, the expense of a wedding party and the high unemployment rate among Saudi men, estimated at 10-12%, as reasons for so many single people.
Alawyah Salama Murjan, former administrative supervisor in the social studies department for the Ministry of Higher Education in Medina, said the media and exposure to Western culture also play a part in young people remaining single.
“Families put pressure on their children to have weddings according to their own traditions and customs,” she said, “but young people want more practical weddings and want to spend less. They see that on television and in movies, and the types of weddings they see appeal to them.”
She said Saudi men often have unrealistic expectations about the kind of women they want to marry. “They might want someone with lighter skin and different colour eyes because this is something they see in the media and it’s desirable but can be unrealistic, so they marry later.”
Another underlying and less discussed aspect of Saudis remaining single are the expectations of Saudi women who find their choice of husbands wanting.
“Saudi women are better educated, hold better, high-paying and prestigious jobs and they are often treated very well at home,” said one Saudi sociologist. “They don’t want to risk marriage with a careless man.”
Maryam Alyenbaawi, 30, of Jeddah, said she has had several suitors over the years. Although her family vetoed marriage proposals from some, she found that none were compatible because they hinted early in the courting process between families that they sought to control her.
“I have it good at home,” she said. “I have a good job and my own money and a good place to live. I don’t need a man to fulfil me. I might want a husband in the future but not another father. I already have one.”
Magda Muhammad Ali, 39, of Medina, said her father rejected several suitors over the years. She is resigned to a single life but she does not see it as a curse. “There is nobody out there that I’d run to for marriage. There are few men I see that I would tolerate,” Ali said.
Saudi Arabia is not alone in its struggle to have its citizens marry but is part of a trend in Middle East countries in which marriage is often not regarded as the first life choice among young adults.
Alrai of Kuwait reported that 45% of the Jordanian women of marrying age remain single. Lebanon ranks first with 86% of its women unmarried. War conditions in Syria have led to 70% of the country’s women being single. About 40% of all Egyptian women eligible to be married are single.
The government of the United Arab Emirates reported that 60% of its marriage-age female population were single and that about 20% of Emirati men marry foreigners. There are fewer than 1 million Emirati citizens in a nation of 8 million people.
Said Al-Kitbi, a member of the UAE’s Federal National Council, said 175,000 Emirati women over 30 are unmarried. “This is very worrying,” he said.
The Saudi General Authority for Statistics indicated that women account for 49.01% of the Saudi population with the total percentage of unmarried females at 34.12%, including single women who are divorced or widowed. Once women reach the age of 32 their chances of marriage greatly diminish, with only 2.8% getting married. About 10% of Saudi women aged 15 or over, have never been married.
The authority reported there were 336,780 divorced Saudis in the kingdom and 411,540 people are widowed.
The authority makes the distinction between unmarried women and “spinsters” for statistical purposes. Unmarried women could be widowed or divorced, while spinsters have never been married and are above the age of 32. The age a woman is considered a spinster differs from one country to another. For example, at the end of 1999, the Saudi government recorded more than 1 million unmarried women over the age of 30, although those women could have been divorced or widowed and are not necessarily spinsters.
To encourage marriage the Saudi government implemented a programme to limit the amount of money a groom pays the bride’s family for a dowry. In 2015, a $13,300 limit was established for a “virgin bride” and $8,000 for a bride who had a previous marriage. Khalid al-Faisal, the emir of Mecca, sought assurances from local tribal leaders to agree to the new limits and document the dowries and have them ratified by the local courts.
Yet dowries and expensive wedding parties remain a sticking point between the younger generation of Saudis and the previous generation.
“This is a social problem that leads to a breakdown in society,” said Murjan. “People don’t want to get married like their parents did. They can’t afford it and Saudi society is family-oriented and being single is frowned upon. There is a lot of family pressure but the young people are resisting that pressure.”