The current COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted life across the globe, including closures of schools, businesses and commerce remote work for some, and reduction or loss of employment for others. International and domestic travel restrictions, and limits on large gatherings of people have led to the cancellation or postponement of major conferences, school graduations and other ceremonies, and community events. Despite these disruptions, ordinary activities and life events do continue. The family is a pillar of Gulf societies, and the Gulf states have made efforts to emphasize the opportunities for families during this crisis, and the facilitation of important life events including marriage, reflects this priority. It can be argued that families are the most resilient social form available to humans. The current pandemic is testing the resiliency of families and communities across the globe. In the Gulf, governments are taking the opportunity to highlight the importance of stable families in society, and adapting their services so they can bolster the strength of families in this current crisis.
Across the globe we hear stories of creative ways families are celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and graduations. At the same time, families are experiencing grief together, but apart, at the loss of family members and friends due to COVID-19 related illness, or other circumstances unrelated to the pandemic. Behind each of these phases in a life cycle, aside from the emotional complications brought on by the pandemic, there are also significant logistical complications that pose unique challenges.
In the Middle East and Arab Gulf regions, family remains a core tenet of society. Government policies and decrees emphasize the importance of the family, even more so in light of recent trends towards higher dowry costs, more frequent marriages to foreigners, and higher divorce rates. As one regional analyst surmises, COVID-19 is seen by the state as an additional threat with the potential to dilute the national gene pool, an issue of concern for most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
Across the GCC, government ministries and agencies that support family well-being have emphasized the potential for positive family relationships and engagement during this time of confinement to the home. All places of public gatherings, even parks and playgrounds, are closed and with children at home from school and parents working remotely, families are together 24/7. Many news stories highlight the positive impacts of more family engagement and bonding, despite the myriad challenges.
In Qatar, the Doha International Family Institute (DIFI), a member of the semi-governmental Qatar Foundation, hosted a webinar in which regional experts discussed the impact of restrictions related to COVID-19 on family life. The executive director of the Family Consulting Center (Wifaq) in Qatar said there is a positive change in behavior of the family in general due to the substantial time families are at home together. In an interview with the Qatar News Agency, he surmised that the current crisis has elevated the sense of responsibility and opportunity to prioritize the family in society.
Wifaq provides consulting and mentoring for families in Qatar. Since mid-March 2020, the center has provided services online to help families reconcile disputes and reach positive solutions, with the overarching goal of maintaining the stability of marital and family life. Wifaq provides counseling for cases that are referred by the family court and private requests. The family court has enabled a digital connection with Wifaq, so these critical services continue to be provided.
Similarly, in Bahrain, the Family Reconciliation Office at the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments started providing online counseling services for Bahraini families at the end of April 2020. The justice and minster for the department has stated that the current circumstances require the containment of social repercussions in order to mitigate risks to families. This is an effort to continue the implementation of the National Plan for the Advancement of Bahraini Women (2019-2022), specifically for family stability.
The Social Observatory Research Program of the Research Council of Oman also hosted a virtual seminar on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on families. The panelists discussed the most prominent psychological, social, family, educational, economic and health challenges facing the Omani family in the current crisis.
While it is important to focus on the positive benefits of this difficult situation, it is equally important to recognize the immense amount of pressure families are facing, which can have negative repercussions. Across the globe, reports of domestic violence have increased, and the Middle East is no exception. As the executive director of DIFI stated in a news interview, domestic violence is exercised as an imposition of power and control, isolating the victim from family and friends. With social distancing and quarantine measures implemented by governments to mitigate the spread of the virus, and the increase in psychological pressures, abusers can exploit the situation to continue and even increase the level of violence.
Rather than ignoring this unpleasant truth, it is important for governments to recognize the prevalence of domestic violence in their societies so they can provide support to vulnerable communities. In Qatar, the Center for Protection and Social Rehabilitation (AMAN) provides shelter for victims of domestic violence, and provides hotlines for reporting and consultation.
Given the centrality of family and marriage in Gulf societies, it is no surprise then that some countries are making it easier for couples to marry, even with strict stay-at-home measures. The United Arab Emirates seems to be the frontrunner in making the vast majority of government services available online. The UAE Ministry of Justice is responsible for registering marriages in the country, and by mid-April 2020 an online wedding service was available for couples wishing to be married. The couple submits the required documents via a website created explicitly for this purpose, chooses a cleric from an approved list, then a date is set for a video conference during which the cleric will perform the ceremony and collect the digital signatures from the couple. The cleric emails the signed marriage contract to the religious court for review, and the approved contract is sent directly to the couple’s mobile phones.
In early May, Saudi Arabia reported that 542 marriage contracts had been filed via the Najiz portal. The service, which was created in April 2019 and has since expanded, facilitates the completion of marriage procedures and obtaining ministerial approval without physical presence in court. Users can even obtain the results of the pre-marital medical examinations, online, without physically visiting a hospital. Couples using the service can make online appointments, prepare the marriage contract details, and review the conditions before the final virtual appointment formalizing the marriage. The marriage is then filed electronically with the Ministerial Agency of Civil Affairs.
Stories of couples opting for a virtual or very small wedding are circulating around the globe. In Egypt one couple decided to go ahead with a small ceremony with only their immediate family, and they gave it a positive spin: the planning and execution of the wedding was much less stressful than is usual for large Egyptian weddings. A Palestinian couple residing in the UAE were thrown a surprise virtual wedding party by their family and friends. They had planned their wedding celebration at a Dubai hotel, and unfortunately were not able to postpone the booking. They also had to cancel their Bali honeymoon. They said the thoughtfulness of their family and friends in coordinating the virtual celebration was very heartwarming in this challenging time.
Even local security forces in Iraq got involved in a local couple’s efforts to go through with their marriage ceremony amid a curfew and restricted gatherings of more than ten people. The bride enjoyed a police escort to the family home of her new husband, giving them a story to remember for generations to come.
Among other important services, the UAE is issuing birth and death certificates online, and residents can even draft and register wills online. While it is possible that other governments in the region are also offering online services such as these, it is not easy to determine the availability of such services by browsing the relevant ministry’s website. Qatar in particular, announced specifically that issuing of birth certificates was suspended from March 22 until further notice, and it is unclear what the process is for registering new births in Qatar during this time. This is no doubt a source of stress and confusion for new parents.
The expansion of online services, however, has some drawbacks. Repatriation of deceased resident workers has never been a simple or straightforward process. In light of new restrictions related to the remains of those who die of COVID-19 related complications, the process has become even more convoluted. Several Indian families suffered further heartbreak when the mortal remains of three men who died in Abu Dhabi of causes not related to COVID-19 were returned to Abu Dhabi due to complicated new measures in accepting the deceased in India. As these systems are put into place, governments need to provide clear guidelines of some of the issues and procedures involved.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all aspects of life across the globe, yet life events continue despite restrictions that have been put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Gulf states continue to adapt in order to support the core tenet of Gulf society—the family—and have used the crisis as an opportunity to further promote the ideal of strong, stable families.
- Read more about the COVID Project here.
Article by Elizabeth Wanucha, Operations Manager at CIRS
For further reading:
Elizabeth Wanucha and Zahra Babar, guest eds., “Family in the Arabian Peninsula,” CIRS Special Issue of Hawwa 16, nos. 1–3 (2018): 5-25.
Jihan Safar, “Explaining Marriage Payments,” Hawwa 16, nos. 1-3 (2018): 90-143.
Islam Hassan, “Social Stratification in Qatari Society,” Hawwa 16, nos. 1-3 (2018): 144-169.
Sanaa Taha Alharahsheh and Faras Khalid Almeer, “Cross-National Marriage in Qatar,” Hawwa 16, nos. 1-3 (2018): 170-204.
Lena-Maria Möller, “Family Law in the GCC and the Best Interests of the Child,” Hawwa 16, nos. 1-3 (2018): 309-332.
Matthew Hedges, “Gulf States Use Coronavirus Threat to Tighten Authoritarian Controls and Surveillance,” The Conversation, April 21, 2020, http://theconversation.com/gulf-states-use-coronavirus-threat-to-tighten….
Geoff Harkness and Rana Khaled, “Modern Traditionalism: Consanguineous Marriage in Qatar,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76, no. 3 (2014): 586-603.
Yahya El-Haddad, “Major Trends Affecting Families in the Gulf Countries,” Report for State of the World’s Children, UNICEF, 2003, www.un.org/esa/socdev/family/Publications/mtelhaddad.pdf.
Suad Joseph, “Patriarchy and Development in the Arab World,” Gender and Development 4, no. 2 (1996): 14-19.
Read about the CIRS project on the Gulf Family here.