Divorce in the Arab Gulf: A Sign of the Changing Times

Although Islam permits divorce, it is strongly discouraged and deemed the “most despised of permissible acts by God.” Yet, in the Arab Gulf, divorce is on the rise. Both men and women are increasingly choosing divorce over staying in an unhappy marriage, regardless of the stigma.
Divorce in the Arab Gulf: A Sign of the Changing Times
Image by: Abdelillah Arahal/Inside Arabia

Throughout the world and most notably in the West, the traditional family structure has been challenged by changing beliefs and perceptions at a far greater pace than ever before. The Arab Gulf states have not been spared this social evolution. More than ever, Arab families are learning to cope, however reluctantly, with an increase in divorce cases and its impact on their social fabric.

31,255 divorce cases were recorded in 2010, but that figure rose to 53,675 in 2017.

According to Saudi Open Data, 31,255 divorce cases were recorded in 2010, but that figure rose to 53,675 in 2017. Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the region struggling with a rising rate of divorce. According to the UAE Statistics Centre, there were 794 divorces in 2010 compared to 1,922 divorces in 2016. In Kuwait, around 60 percent of marriages ended in divorce in 2017. Given that not all divorces are reported, the actual figures are likely to be much higher. Although studies are limited, the causes for divorce are very similar to those in other parts of the world, such as infidelity and domestic abuse. The difference today is that it is easier to divorce even if it is still perceived negatively. Women, especially, have more resources to pursue a divorce.

Nicola Beer is a family and relationship specialist who has been living in Dubai for 12 years. Most of her clients are expats, but her clientele also includes Emiratis, Saudis, and Bahrainis. Many of the cases that she handles are caused by infidelity, anger management, anxiety and insecurities, addiction, and clashes with in-laws and extended family.

When families get involved in a couple’s marriage, it gives rise to many problems, particularly when the spouses come from different backgrounds. If an Emirati and a Westerner get married, they might not have the same expectations of the role of the extended family. A Western spouse is often ill-equipped to deal with such significant cultural differences.

When asked about the effects of divorce on society, Beer told Inside Arabia, “It definitely hurts [society, as] people leave the Gulf when marriages break down. This sadly means long distance parenting as well.”  

In Saudi Arabia, obtaining child custody is difficult. Mothers tend to get custody until the child reaches puberty, then the father can file for guardianship.

Indeed, a serious consequence of divorce is the separation of a parent from his or her child. In Saudi Arabia, obtaining child custody is difficult. Mothers tend to get custody until the child reaches puberty, then the father can file for guardianship. In 2018, Saudi mothers won the right to retain custody of their children without filing lawsuits, which typically meant spending years in court. Mothers now have the right to keep their children’s passports and conduct their legal affairs. However, mothers cannot take their children outside of the country without a male guardian’s permission, similar to laws in the United States.

Dr. Roghy McCarthy is a clinical psychologist with her own private practice in Dubai, and she believes that “since women are highly educated these days and hold well-paid jobs and positions, they do not fall into the normative roles of staying with an overbearing spouse.” Hence, more women make decisions about their marriage and divorce. Dr. McCarthy points out that men too are prioritizing work over relationships, often preferring to pursue success in their careers. Potentially, this could lead to couples waiting longer before getting married.

Saudi opinion in general on divorce seems pretty clear: divorce is detrimental to society and something needs to be done to decrease its occurrence. According to the Saudi Gazette, social consultant Salman Bin Mohammed Al-Amri believes that the “high rate of divorce has become a destabilizing factor in Saudi society and it obstructs the Kingdom’s march to greater progress.” He warns about the effects of foreign influence on Saudi society and argues that divorce leads to psychological harm for both the adults and children involved.

The government has gone so far as to blame women for the high divorce rate because there are more of them in the workforce. There is a certain irony here, given the Saudi Vision 2030 plan’s target to significantly increase women’s participation in the workforce. In 2016, the General Authority of Statistics released data that indicated that working mothers were more likely to divorce than stay-at-home wives. The Authority conducted a poll asking people what the driving causes behind divorce were. The poll provided two suggested answers: wives are too busy for their husbands, or wives feel as if their husbands are no longer necessary. The bias was striking. Rather than study the actual possible motives for divorce of both partners, the study focused on an unstated embedded assumption that women are ostensibly at fault.

The study generated backlash from many quarters and led to the creation of the online campaign with the hashtag “#WorkisnotaCauseforDivorce.” Both Saudi men and women disputed the notion that women being in the workforce negatively affects Saudi society.

The rising rate of divorce is a matter of concern because of its effects on the family structure, but it could also be a step towards improved women’s rights.

The rising rate of divorce is a matter of concern because of its effects on the family structure, but it could also be a step towards improved women’s rights. Rather than staying in abusive relationships to please their families, women are leaving their husbands to protect themselves and their children. However, in the conservative Arab Gulf society, there is still a stigma attached to divorce, and it is commonly viewed as women’s burden. Many families would rather see their daughters stay married, even if their husbands are abusive than suffer the shame a divorce would bring.

Nevertheless, in the Arab Gulf states, the rising divorce rate might not be as alarming as their governments fear. It might, in fact, signal that women and men are beginning to choose personal freedom over convention and women’s empowerment over submission, factors that arguably contribute to the improved economics projected by the country’s Vision 2030 and other economic plans for the future.