Wedding for the dough? Saudis debate new marriage law

Lawmakers fear changes will make women vulnerable to foreign gold diggers in country where their rights are severely constrained.

Saudi Woman Driving 311 (photo credit: YouTube)
Saudi Woman Driving 311
(photo credit: YouTube)
Conservative lawmakers in Saudi Arabia are in an uproar that the country’s single women will fall victim to foreign gold diggers as the kingdom debates amendments to its complicated and red-tape strewn marriage law.
A proposed amendment to Saudi Arabia's marriage law will make it easier for Saudis to marry foreigners, although not just any foreigner, only those from other Gulf Arab countries. Still, many parliamentarians say the change would have a disastrous effect on Saudi society, exposing the country’s females into wedlock with non-Saudis eager to get a piece of the oil-soaked kingdom’s wealth.
"Foreigners will not marry Saudi women for their pretty eyes," asserted Talal Bakri, a member of the country’s Shoura Council, or parliament. He warned that the change would spark an influx of foreigners into the country.
Parliament member Khalil Ibrahim was even less delicate, telling the Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat that the new mechanism "would indicate that we have a ready-made product, demanding that non-Saudis marry Saudis." Ahmad Al-Mufrih, another lawmaker, suggested adding a clause that disallowed non-Saudi drug addicts from applying for marriage.
The amended marriage law would be a small advance for women in a country where their rights are among the most severely constrained in the world, banned from driving, voting in what few elections there are, or mixing with men who aren’t related to them. Despite lawmakers’ fears, most Saudi women don’t choose their marriage partners since they aren’t free to meet men in public.
Right now, a Saudi – man or woman – who wants to marry a foreigner faces a complicated set of procedures and categories. Most Saudis must request a special government permit to marry non-Saudis, even if they are Muslim. However, since January 2010, when the law was last amended, some categories of men were awarded the right to marry no-Saudis. 
It’s a strange list that includes ministers, members of the judiciary, diplomats at the Foreign Ministry, employees of the Royal Court, the crown prince’s court, the Council of Ministers, the National Security Council, and members of the councils and organizations chaired by the king and the crown prince. So is staff at the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, the Interior Ministry, the National Guard, the Royal Guard and the General Organization for Military Industries, members of the Commission for Investigation and public prosecution, customs staff and all students studying abroad under government scholarship programs.
Other parts of the law govern what kind of foreign residents in Saudi Arabia are permissible marriage partners and children of mixed Saudi/non-Saudi marriages.
"National identity hasn't quite caught up with biology in Saudi Arabia," Cristoph Wilcke, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch,  told The Media Line, referring to the fact that the child of a non-Saudi father is commonly seen as non-Saudi, since national identity is widely viewed in Arab societies as transmitted through the father alone.
Wilcke said Saudis used both economic and "racially tinged" arguments against relaxing the marriage laws in the kingdom.
The 12 proposed amendments would allow Saudis to freely marry citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, which include Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Oman, as well as children of one Saudi parent.   
The stated purpose of the amendments is to enact equality between male and female Saudis, but Eman Al-Nafjan, a Riyadh-based blogger who writes extensively on women's issues, said she was undecided as to whether the parliamentarians were right to be concerned.
"There are a large number of single women in Saudi Arabia," Al-Nafjan told The Media Line. "On the other hand, many men and women marry foreigners for economic reasons."
She said that economic benefits for a Saudi's spouse include free health care, free education and a permanent resident's visa. Al-Nafjan noted that she personally knew a Saudi man whose foreign wife married him for the social benefits.
Nevertheless, Al-Nafjan said she saw no reason to prevent Saudis from marrying Gulf Arabs, since the social benefits enjoyed in those countries exceed those given in Saudi Arabia, and there would therefore be no ulterior motive for them to marry Saudis. Indeed, Kuwait’s per capita gross domestic product, a rough measure of wealth, is more than twice Saudi Arabia’s $24,200.
The new amendments come to the aid of women in other small ways. They would limit the age difference allowed between men and women who marry in Saudi Arabia to 25 years. The phenomenon of older men marrying younger, often under-aged brides, has been widely criticized by human rights activists. There is no legal age limit to marriage in Saudi Arabia.
Despite conservative lawmakers’ griping about the marriage law, the issue that has transfixed the kingdom in the last several days is the right of women to drive. But Saudi columnist Abdallah Al-Jamili argued in an editorial published Tuesday in the daily Al-Madina that Saudi women suffered from marital problems much more than from their inability to drive.
"Women suffer from the spread of the diseases of spinsterhood and divorce," Al-Jamili wrote, citing recent research by the Ministry of Planning indicating a 20% increase in divorce over the past few years. He added that the number of single marriageable women is expected to rise from 1.5 million to 4 million within five years.
"Where is the debate on these important issues that affect women's honor, their livelihood and their future?" Al-Jamili asked.