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Saudi weddings

I have been meaning to discuss the subject of Saudi weddings for a while, so here we go.

Traditionally marriages are arranged, with the parents of the bride and groom in the lead. I have spoken to some colleagues and others I know in Riyadh about this, and from what I understand, when a young man is ready to get wed, he should have finished his education and secured a job and be in a state to financially support his new family. So as I inhabit a world mostly populated by professional and technical types, that will be young men who have left university and started their career, so will be in their mid-20s.

Two young engineers that I know of have had slightly different routes to finding a partner. One – lets call him ‘Ahmed’ – met a young Saudi lady when he was at university in the USA, and they got to know each other well enough to decide that when they both returned to KSA that they would like to get married. They came from different cities in the Kingdom, so Ahmed told his parents about – lets call her ‘Noura’ – and Ahmed’s father contacted Noura’s family and asked if they could meet to discuss matters of mutual interest. So the parents met, the first time on neutral ground at a restaurant in Noura’s city and the subject of marriage was discussed. Noura had briefed her parents about the topic of the discussion, so after the first meeting went well, a second one was scheduled at Noura’s house with both sets of parents plus the two youngsters all there. Ahmed’s father asked Noura’s father if his son could marry her daughter and it was agreed.

‘Ziyad’ graduated from a Saudi male-only university and after a time spent abroad with relatives in Abu Dhabi he returned home to Riyadh and took up an engineering role at Riyadh metro. His parents decided it was time for him to move on and put word out in their social circle that Ziyad was looking for a bride. Through a friend of the family a girl ‘Alaa’ who had recently qualified as a hospital radiologist was identified as suitable, and the friend invited Ziyad’s and Alaa’s parents to meet at his house. After some introductions, the two sets of parents were left alone, and the subject of marriage was raised by Ziyad’s mother. The parents discussed each others’ family history and social standing, and these were deemed mutually acceptable. A further meeting was arranged at Alaa’s family home, this time with Alaa and Ziyad both in attendance, as well as both sets of parents and some more elders on Alaa’s side too. The youngsters were introduced to each other, with Alaa wearing a veil. Again this meeting went well, and both sets of parents agreed that a marriage would be suitable.

So we have both arranged and consensual marriages as possibilities. From my rudimentary research on this topic, I understand that arranged marriages are most common at the poorer end of the Saudi social scales, and also those at the top end of society, including royals. Here, the first wife is usually a socially suitable person woman but any subsequent wives (up to four are permitted) may be the man’s choice. The consensual marriage is growing in popularity in the middle classes, and Ahmed and Noura are an example of this.

One interesting requirement for a marriage in KSA is that both the bride’s and groom’s health records are seen by each others’ families, presumably to prove that each other are healthy and clean. And it is taken as granted that the bride, having been under the protection of her family all her life will be pure.

Ex-pat people working in KSA (note, all are either visa holders or residents, no matter how long you live here, it is not possible to obtain Saudi citizenship, that privilege is reserved for people born of a Saudi father) may get married in the Kingdom but only via a Muslim ceremony. So, both parties must be registered Muslims and resident here. It is common to see adverts placed in newspapers here by residents with sub-continental Asian roots, and here are two actual adverts with identifier details redacted:

“Hyderabad based parent’s invite alliance for their handsome son, 30 yrs, 5’7”, MBA (UK), working in Riyadh as Technical Sales Manager with Family status. The bride should be well educated with Islamic values, beautiful from well-educated family. Contact/WhatsApp:  0503201XXX. 

“I am looking for a suitable marriage companion, bride, for my son, around 29 years, BBA, working in Jeddah. We belong to India, Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow. We will prefer a bride from UP or Indian nationals under 25 years old. Kindly apply with photo and prospective bride's education/family details and contact number. Thanks. Eng. Mushtaq. Mobile: 0535489XXX. Email:”

But like anywhere else in the world, the wedding ceremony is a great day. But to western eyes the event is very strange, in that the bride’s party (all female) and the groom’s entourage (all male) don’t actually meet. Typically, they will hire a public “ceremony hall”, a venue that specialises in weddings and major family gatherings. Two adjacent rooms will be booked, and decorated. Food will be ordered, and served late in the evening. The ceremony will start very late, usually after 10pm, and often after midnight. There is no religious ceremony, it is consensual. After the ceremony, within the next few days, the couple will have to record their marriage at the local registry facility. Or, at least the husband and father-in-law, or brother-in-law will. The bride will not be involved in the registry.

The ladies wear their finest dresses, bought for the occasion, but as they are separate from the men, the ladies can show themselves off without wearing their usual modesty attire. They will dance, and admire each other’s fashion sense. If there is a band provided, it will be in yet another room and the music piped in, and possibly shown on a big screen. In days of yore they might have been in the same room, but robustly screened away from view. The men, their best thobes on, will dine and dance next door. The traditional Saudi dance is something what my daughters would call “Dad dancing”, and can be described as an in-line shuffle and the synchronized raising and lowering of swords or sticks. I am sure it has great cultural meaning.

For the moment of union the groom will be invited into the bride’s room (once all ladies have donned their over-garments) or into a neutral room, and rings will be exchanged. After that point the couple may make their exit. Or they can separate back to their unisex parties and leave together after the night is finished. As I remarked earlier, all a bit strange to our eyes, but that’s the culture here, and they are happy with that.

But with the onset of COVID-19, things have changed somewhat, at least temporarily. Here’s a report from “Arab News” giving details of the new virtual process.

 RIYADH: The Najiz portal of the Saudi Ministry of Justice, offering online marriage contracts, has attracted couples in Riyadh eager to tie the knot amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown. 

The ministry revealed on Monday that 542 online marriage contracts had been filed via the portal since the suspension of work on March 16.

The service aims to expedite the process by facilitating the completion of marriage procedures and obtaining ministerial approval for couples without necessitating their physical presence in court. It also allows users to check medical examinations online without the need to physically visit a hospital and to record a marriage electronically in the Ministerial Agency of Civil Affairs. 

The portal also gives beneficiaries the ability to make appointments electronically, prepare contract data and review the conditions before the appointment.

Abdul Aziz Mohammed welcomed this step. He considers his marriage contract to be enough of a wedding celebration and plans to move in with his new wife immediately. 

“We weren’t planning on having a big wedding anyway, and this makes it easier on all of us. The money we would have spent on a wedding can go into savings instead, and no one will be at risk of catching the virus from our party,” he said. 

“We both agreed that we could always have a big celebration on our first anniversary,” Mohammed added.

However, those wanting to celebrate their weddings with parties and gatherings will have to wait much longer, especially with no cure for COVID-19 in the foreseeable future.

Bride-to-be and university student Reem H. is taking no chances with the virus and postponing all celebrations until things settle down again.

“We were supposed to have a big engagement party a week after the actual lockdown. My fiancé’s family suggested holding a small party in our home with very close family and friends. However, my father was against it because of the government’s instructions and asked to postpone our engagement party until the coast is clear and the pandemic is over,” she said.

“We want to enjoy this momentous time with the people we love, knowing that we are all safe,” Reem added.

 For an eye-witness account of the ladies perspective of a Saudi wedding, have a look at this blog by Blue Abaya, a western lady who is married to a Saudi and whose website is a mine of information about life in and around Riyadh.



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