MANAMA, Bahrain — With oil income in decline, more and more Arab men in Persian Gulf countries no longer can afford to marry Arab women. They are taking foreign women as their brides, and Arab leaders are alarmed.
The problem rests with an age-old Arab tradition called the Mahr, a male version of the dowry. The bridegroom pays the bride's father a sum of money for a lavish wedding, with some left over for furniture.
When oil prices quadrupled in the mid-1970s, the amount of money in a Mahr went up with them--ranging from $2,000 to as much as $100,000. But with oil prices down these days and individual incomes falling with them, Arab men find the price of native women too high and they are wooing foreigners.
A dismayed King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has put his personal prestige behind an effort to halt the trend, and the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait plan to offer loans, ranging from $4,000 to $15,000, for men who become betrothed to Arab women.
$100 for Pakistani
"It costs a minimum of about $100 for a Gulf man to marry a girl from India or Pakistan, $500 for a Filipina, and about $1,000 for an Egyptian," said Youssef Hassan, a shopkeeper in Bahrain who keeps up with such things.
An estimated 5.5 million Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Filipinos and Egyptians work in the Gulf region, and about 1.9 million of them are women.
In the days before oil, a Mahr could be two female camels to as many as 100. Virgins invariably command two or three times more than widows or divorced women.
The size of the Mahr usually is worked out in delicate negotiations.
Commonly, the family of the prospective groom asks in extremely subtle style how much the family of the bride thinks the Mahr should be. Strenuous and protracted haggling usually follows and sometimes intermediaries are called in.
Leaders of some of the more traditional Arab states on the Arabian Peninsula only became concerned since foreign women entered the picture.
Undermines 'Spirit of Kinship'
Saudi leaders maintain that marrying foreign women causes Arab men to develop ties to their wives' people rather than their own, undermining the traditional Asabiyeh-- "spirit of kinship."
King Fahd encourages early marriage among his people to increase population growth and preserve Arab hegemony in his desert kingdom. Although it is larger than Western Europe, Saudi Arabia has only 11 million people, and more than a quarter of them are foreigners.
Many Arabs would like to do away with expensive rituals, but the custom of big weddings is deeply ingrained in the Arab life style, even among the poor. For many families a big Mahr is a mark of status and prestige.
King Fahd recently told Saudi students who study abroad to resist the temptation to marry non-Arab women.
"Saudi girls have no problems with their morals and virtues, they are no less beautiful than women elsewhere in the world, but good looks are not everything," the king told a group of students in Jidda. "So why should one look for a wife abroad?"
At his behest, Al Dawasir tribal leaders in southern Saudi Arabia recently limited Mahrs to a maximum of 40,000 riyals ($10,810) for a virgin and 30,000 riyals ($8,108) for a widow or a divorced woman.
Placate First Wife
The chieftains also agreed that every husband taking a second wife should "placate" his first wife by giving her 5,000 riyals ($1,351). Muslims are allowed to have as many as four wives.
"We hope all clans will abide by these limitations to eradicate the phenomenon of high Mahrs and expensive wedding ceremonies," the newspaper Al Madina quoted the Al Dawasir chieftain, Sheik Shuwaihi Al Dosari, as saying.