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Mariage et famille dans le Golfe aujourd’hui

Marriage and Family in the Gulf Today: Storms over a patriarchal institution?

Françoise De Bel-Air, Jihan Safar et Blandine Destremau
Cet article est une traduction de :
Mariage et famille dans le Golfe aujourd’hui : tempête sur l’institution patriarcale ? [fr]

Texte intégral

1Since the first oil crisis of 1973, the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have undergone profound socio‑economic changes. Over the period, they have seen dramatic rises in GDP, and urbanization propelled by the significant demographic growth of national populations, which increased from less than 10 million in 1970–751 to about 26 million in 2017. Massive immigration also more than doubled the number of inhabitants of the six countries to approximately 55 million, half of whom were foreign nationals.2 The high Human Development Index rates (HDI) in these countries attest to their high per capita income levels but also demonstrate progress in the health and education sectors financed by oil revenues.3 The considerable demographic growth reflects a decline in infant mortality as well as an increase in life expectancy. The rise in literacy rates, especially for girls, is a trend that also emerged clearly. In 2015, between 83% and 95% of school‑aged girls enrolled in secondary education, and around 50% of women between 18 and 23 registered in higher education (with numbers rising to above 60% in Saudi Arabia and Oman).4

  • 5 Statistics emanating from the Gulf region are often scarce and, when available, are not always rel (...)

2These developments have profoundly affected family structures and dynamics in the Gulf. The age at first marriage has increased, and fertility levels have gone down everywhere since the 1990s. However, the changes observed are sometimes contradictory, not only between factors but also between countries. Levels of endogamy and consanguineous marriage, for example, seem to remain high. The temporalities of the evolution of family structures vary from one nation to another. The current issue, therefore, explores a first set of questions. Taking into account the limitations of available demographic data,5 it investigates the characteristics of family structures in the Gulf countries and attempts to explain their variations from one country to another, their paradoxes and contradictions. In other words, the authors seek to answer the following question: which factors influence family dynamics, beyond what we identified as their “proximate”, or basic determinants, namely, education and the massive social and health investments financed by hydrocarbon revenues?

  • 6 This was the case until the 2000s. Since the 2010s, female economic participation is strongly encou (...)

3Family structures are affected by public policies, whose aims, scopes and effectiveness vary over time and from one country to another. The impact of these policies raises questions for researchers and observers. For example, why is girls' education so strongly prioritized in Gulf development policies, when women's activity is not subsequently and equally supported,6 and while the six countries encourage, to varying degrees, high fertility? Why is endogamy most often viewed with some suspicion; why is divorce regarded as a social calamity in most countries in the region? How can we explain the State’s intrusion in couples’ lives, as well as in the patterns of marriage and its dissolution?

4The second set of questions explored in this issue thus relates to how and why demographic dynamics and their context, the family as an institution, have become important targets of public policy in Gulf countries.

  • 7 See for example: Mosse, 1985; Anderson, 1991; Parker, Russo, Sommer & Yaeger, 1992 or Ginsburg & R (...)
  • 8 Bourdieu, 1993.

5The institution of the family, in the Gulf as elsewhere, occupies a predominant place in society. It is the focal point of biological reproduction, but also social, cultural and political reproduction. The forms of control of sexuality and alliance, of biological reproduction, power relations between parents and children as well as within the couple, the monitoring of the social role of women, of health practices related to reproduction, the stigmatization of certain behaviours as deviant or socially irresponsible, and the acceptance of others as lawful are all normative constructions. These are inseparable from the nation‑building process, which is based on the establishment of new standards of control within society and new forms of exercise of power.7 Demographic and family policies, or “biopolitics” in Foucault’s terms, do indeed emanate directly from politics. They sometimes seek to anchor social relations in a naturalized biological order. The domination of a political leader, for example, can be assimilated to that of the father, i.e. of the patriarch over his children, in a “naturalization of social arbitrariness”.8

  • 9 Hasso, 2011.

6As an institution expected to control all dimensions of the reproductive process, the family thus becomes subject to a variety of representations, emanating from different social institutions and actors. The divergences between the various portrayals of the family, but also the perception of a “family crisis,”9 the symptoms and causes attributed to this “crisis” thus ultimately reflect the social actors’ diverging views concerning the nation‑building process, its patterns and characteristics. Based on the analysis of the policies and the various narratives focussing on family‑related questions, the present issue thus seeks to highlight the normative representations of social, economic and political relations in the Gulf States. It also seeks to detect the various types of nationalism implicitly promoted or contested in these policies, conducted within the realm of the regions’ ambitious social modernization projects.

7Launched in 2017, this volume of Arabian Humanities called for innovative, critical and analytical contributions related to the multifaceted issue of family. We did not set an a priori definition of the category or concept of “family”; the authors were left to approach it inductively. It is no surprise, however, that most envisaged family as primarily structured by kinship, and by patterns of alliance‑making that span between the near — notably the endogamous union – to the most distant — which includes marriage with foreigners. The eight articles in this issue stem from various academic disciplines: ethnology, anthropology, sociology, demography, but also political science and international relations. Different approaches and research methodologies are also mobilized and include ethnography, econometrics, political demography, neo‑institutionalism, gender studies, and intersectional approaches, qualitative or quantitative field surveys, analysis of an online fatwas corpus, of statistical data and narratives of government policies. Together, they advance the still rather poorly developed state of knowledge on the societies of the Gulf. The contributions highlight the specificities of the social modernization projects initiated in the region as they question preconceived notions about the social and political immobility presumably characterizing these countries. Beyond the effective generalization of an autocratic model of government and policy‑steering, the articles emphasize the diversity of visions and goals underpinning social development processes (including family policies) from one country to another. Consequently, the articles demonstrate the variety of processes of construction and reconstruction of the social ties and state–society relations within the region.

Family dynamics in the Gulf: trends and paradoxes

8As noted by researchers back in the 1990s, families in the Gulf region have undergone profound structural changes. These changes and the stakes and challenges they pose for the societies and states of the region are at the heart of the topics explored in this Issue.

  • 10 Based on Gulf Family Health Surveys (GFHS), a survey program on fertility rates conducted in the G (...)
  • 11 In the case of Saudi Arabia: Khraif, 2001; Abdul Salam, 2013.
  • 12 Saudi Demographic Surveys of 1987 and 2016.

9Marriage and fertility, two key factors in the process of family formation and reproduction of the social order, have evolved dramatically over recent decades.10 Fertility rates dropped throughout the region,11 leading to a reduction in the size of households. Saudi fertility, for example, seems to have collapsed. Even if such results still need to be adequately assessed, as Françoise De Bel‑Air notes, Saudi women were giving birth to seven or more children on average in the late 1980s, while in the early 2010s that figure could have dropped to less than three.12

  • 13 Creton, 2012, p. 72.
  • 14 Fargues, 2000, p. 118–119.
  • 15 The probability of marriage decreases with time since procreation remains its primary objective.

10Marriage patterns have also changed dramatically and are moving away from a model of early and universal nuptiality. Today, on average, women marry after the age of 24; in Kuwait, Bahrain, and even Oman in the early 2010s, only about 5% of girls aged below 20 were recorded in union (i.e. either married, widowed or divorced). As men’s mean age at marriage has remained more stable, the age gap between spouses started reducing. In 1975, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), grooms were eight years older than their brides, on average, whereas in the late 2000s the gap narrowed to approximately one year, as Emirati women married about age 25.5 and men at 26.6, on average.13 Such a change significantly affects the distribution of authority and power within the couple.14 Notably, women's celibacy, once a relatively marginal phenomenon in Bahrain and Kuwait and extremely rare in Saudi Arabia, could also become a social reality. In Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, about 10% of women in the 45‑49 age group had never married, as recorded in several surveys and censuses conducted since the 2000s. The steady increase in the proportion of women aged 35 and over remaining single suggests that the phenomenon could spread throughout the region.15

11The high cost of marriage — which includes the payment of a dowry (mahr), gold, the expenses of the marriage ceremony and housing — is one of the main factors behind the delay in marriage in the region. In Oman, for example, during the social uprisings of early 2011, some young people called for the creation of a “Marriage Fund” (sundūq zawāj), to ease the burden of marriage expenditures and to fight celibacy in the country. Despite Oman’s Shura Council 2012 proposition in favour of the endowment, the Omani government seems to have postponed it indefinitely. Consequently, young people opt for alternative forms of financing that include popular finance, organizing collective weddings, and resorting to Islamic banks for loans, amongst others (see Jihan Safar in this issue.)

  • 16 Civil status registrations indicate that only 10% (Bahrain) and 14% (Qatar) of the marriages concl (...)
  • 17 According to Qatar’s civil registration office, 75% of marriages involving a Qatari woman and a for (...)

12The marriage market has expanded, however, and even become globalized, thereby increasing the number of potential partners. Young men and women attend universities in higher numbers, new public spaces such as shopping malls, new information technologies, i.e., marriage websites, offer greater possibilities for encounters. As Alanoud Alsharekh highlights in the case of Kuwait, unions with foreign nationals have remained frequent and even increased in numbers. In the UAE and Kuwait, for instance, 20–25% of the marriages recorded in 2014 were concluded between a male national and a foreign female. Gulf women citizens, however, are generally less inclined than men to marry outsiders.16 Furthermore, as Anie Montigny points out in her analysis of the new marriage patterns in Qatar, when marrying foreign nationals, Qatari females most often choose citizens from other GCC countries,17 who are usually members of transnational tribal groups.

  • 18 According to Child Health Surveys (Jurdi & Saxena, 2001, table 4).
  • 19 MDPS, 2017: 17.

13In spite of such trends towards marrying foreigners, high levels of endogamy persist in the region. In the late 1990s, 30 to 50% of unions in Gulf States were concluded between kin‑related spouses.18 In 2016, 42% of the marriages recorded in Qatar occurred between relatives, of which about 60% took place between first‑degree relatives. These made up 24% of all the marriages concluded during the year.19 Yagoub and Yousif Al‑Kandari study the characteristics of endogamous unions in Kuwait and underscore the frequency of the phenomenon within socio‑cultural groups that they describe as “Bedouin”. Their study supports the hypothesis of the vitality of the tribal bonds, often socially constructed, within the national societies of the Gulf countries.

  • 20 Even if this is more prevalent within the middle classes and has less influence amongst the aristo (...)

14Similarly, Anie Montigny brings attention to the efforts of many Qatari citizens, who are members of a same tribal group, to maintain their co‑residence within the same geographical area. These resist the regime’s attempts to promote the nuclear family, through the selective allocation of building land plots. Nonetheless, the very evolution of the phenomenon of endogamy, for instance, suggests a de facto attenuation of the rule of the prevalence of patrilineality (the preferred choice of the spouse among the father’s blood relatives). Growing levels of endogamy in matrilineal descent, for example, are pointed out in the fertility surveys conducted in several Arab Middle East and Gulf countries. Marriage among close agnates (paternal kinship), slowly gives way to preferential unions within the kinship group as a whole, i.e., the agnatic and cognatic kin members, even in the United Arab Emirates where the purity of the agnatic line (nasab) is the condition for citizenship.20

  • 21 The ratio of married women to married men (only for Gulf nationals) returned a rate of 100.4 marrie (...)
  • 22 Number of divorces per 100 marriages concluded in 2015. Divorces generally occur within two years (...)
  • 23 Fargues, 2000, p. 127.

15Polygamy remains relatively uncommon in Gulf countries,21 but divorce is frequent. One quarter to one‑half of marriages ended in divorce in Qatar in 2015.22 Divorce is addressed in two of the eight contributions in this issue. Anie Montigny on Qatar and Zina Sawaf on Saudi Arabia both underscore the many and multifaceted challenges attributed to the phenomenon and analyse the policies designed to limit it. Current high levels of marital instability are not new, however. Contrary to the heated social debates surrounding the phenomenon in many GCC countries, the “Arab marriage” is characterized by its instability, and the rarely available data indicates that half of the unions were ending up in divorce in the early twentieth century.23

  • 24 Patai, 1971.

16Finally, despite their rapid mutations and the process of individualization at work in the region’s societies (Alanoud Alsharekh), family dynamics characterizing the Gulf countries still retain some features of the archetypal “traditional” Arab family. More of an ideal than a reality, the latter is described as “…extended, patrilineal, patrilocal, patriarchal, endogamous, and occasionally polygamous”.24 Despite their sharp decline in recent years, fertility levels remain high in the region, when compared to those found in countries with similar levels of education, income and social development around the world. A cause or a consequence of high fertility rates, female labour force participation rates remain very low in GCC countries: from only 19% of women aged 15 and over in Saudi Arabia, up to 39% in Kuwait, well under the world average of 64%.

Powerful social and economic changes affecting family structures

17The transformations of family structures in the Gulf region, and the coexistence of paradoxical or apparently contradictory dynamics were spurred by a number of “proximate”, or basic socio‑economic determinants, as described earlier. Progress in the health sector and rapid advancements in education, especially that of women, have triggered rapid evolutions. As a result, tensions between generations and between genders were soon witnessed. As Zina Sawaf and Anie Montigny observe, women’s dissatisfaction with the traditional marriage patterns focusses, for instance, on the frequency of arranged marriages. Females’ grievances also target the discrepancy in profile and in expectations between the spouses, especially since women are often more educated than their husbands in the region. Yagoub and Yousif Al‑Kandari adopt a cultural perspective to explain the divergences in marriage patterns, their implications on family size and marriage duration observed in two administrative regions of Kuwait. The authors contrast the endogamous (consanguineous) unions, specific to populations identified as “Bedouin” (badū) to the exogamous (non‑consanguineous) marriage, which could reflect the increasing encroachment of the urbanization process and, more generally, signal social practices characterizing populations defining themselves as “urbanites” (haḍar).

18Yet, in order to gain a better understanding of the paradoxical evolution of family structures in the Gulf, we must explore beyond the specific nature of “proximate” causalities, and re‑situate family dynamics within a broader socio‑cultural and historical context.

Islam, patriarchy and social control

  • 25 For example, the hadith: “Marry those who are loving and fertile, for I will be proud of your grea (...)
  • 26 Abd El Ati, 1977.

19Government incentives for universal marriage and high fertility initially responded to distinct national concerns. The foremost was to counter “demographic imbalance” between nationals and expatriates, and to stand up to demographic competition with other regional powers, e.g., Saudi Arabia with regards to Iran. More generally, however, the idea of early and universal unions underpins the Islamic and patriarchal conception of marriage as a right and a duty. Sexuality responds to the right to personal fulfilment for both women and men but is also understood as a duty, i.e., securing the preservation and continuity of the human race. Sexuality must, however, be limited to the context of marriage: the spouses must take responsibility for the consequences of their sexual acts, and children need legal identification within a lineage. This seeks to avoid social disorder, and more specifically, the procreation of children of unknown paternal (agnatic) descent. Marriage thus offers a legitimate outlet to pleasure: procreation.25 It is at the same time a religious duty, a moral safeguard and a social necessity, based on a legally binding contract between the two spouses.26 In the light of Islam, marriage fulfils another requirement: it perpetuates the basic unit of society, the Muslim family, and endows it with legal and spiritual foundations. The family is responsible for providing its members with love and protection, but also social rights, identity, and legitimacy within the society and the Umma, or the community of believers.

20This normative and ideal framework, however, is embedded in a social, economic and political organization, and particularly what has been identified and analysed as a family “rentier model”. The transformations of the family institution are thus linked to the transformation of this socio‑political model, operating within global dynamics.

From the “rentier model” to the partial disengagement of the States: 1990–2000

  • 27 A “rent” is an income earned from natural resources or trading of strategic resources, as opposed (...)
  • 28 Fargues, 2000, p. 102–107.

21Since 1973 and the onset of the “oil boom” in the region, rentier resources27 have been redistributed to citizens as subsidies, in the form of social benefits, family allowances, free housing, health and education. In a way which is now well known,28 the granting of subsidies to national populations helped to alleviate the “costs” of procreation and led to the disconnection of women's education from their economic participation in the labour market, since top‑down subsidies made their contribution to the family income unnecessary. Additionally, the presence of expatriates, predominantly employed in the private sector, confined socially rewarding job opportunities to the government sector. This explains why women's rising education levels did not quickly lead to a significant delay in marriage and reduction in fertility, as was observed elsewhere in the world. Social and moral norms, moreover, kept women under patriarchal supervision, within the family, as daughters, wives, and mothers. In such a context, marriage and procreation appeared as the ultimate destiny of every citizen, males and females alike.

22However, since the State’s redistribution was conditioning citizens’ access to personal fulfilment through marriage and family formation, and guaranteeing social and economic security, the widespread decline in fertility levels and the significant rise in the average age at first marriage, revealed by the Gulf Child Health Surveys and national surveys of the end of the 1990s, were immediately interpreted in political terms. In fact, demographic changes signalled the decline of the family as the primary social unit, hence the widespread fears regarding the emergence of social disorders.

  • 29 The UAE and especially Qatar, are less affected by these evolutions than Bahrain, Oman and Saudi A (...)
  • 30 One example is the decade-long process and conditions by which Saudi Arabia joined the WTO (mid-19 (...)
  • 31 Louër, 2015.
  • 32 Destremau et al., 2013.

23Demographic changes indeed echoed a complex set of domestic policy issues, regional tensions and international pressures that weakened the rentier allocation of Gulf regimes to their citizens after the late 1980s. Amongst these matters was the demographic pressure on labour markets, a result of the high fertility levels of the previous decades. In a context of fluctuating, and then low hydrocarbon prices in the 1990s, this became especially problematic as it led to the emergence of unemployment among nationals and the formation of pockets of poverty.29 Faced with the drying up of their redistributive capacities, Gulf States were forced into drastic reforms of their socio‑economic contexts, to make them compliant to the rules of neoliberal globalization.30 Subsequently, national labour markets had to be “rationalized”: job “gulfization” (or nationalization) policies were launched, which implied regulating labour immigration.31 These changes also had profound repercussions on the social role of women as well as on their integration into the labour force, as was demonstrated in a previous issue of Arabian Humanities.32

  • 33 See for example Louër, 2008 for a study of Bahrain.
  • 34 The historical perspective is limited to the oil era and to the societies that developed in this c (...)
  • 35 Hertog, 2006, p. 120.

24The drastic reduction of social assistance and subsidies to nationals and, especially, the substantial contraction of recruitment in the public sector — although to a lesser extent in the UAE and Qatar — signalled the end of the massive redistribution of oil revenues to Gulf citizens. Social and economic reforms33 have seriously undermined the benefits of the rent as well as the privileges granted to nationals, in a segmented labour market defining citizenship. Attempts to implement these reforms thus overturned the social and political contracts previously based on the relatively generalized “rentier” redistribution of resources.34 As the State's redistributive capacity has greatly diminished, national populations are now divided between citizens connected to “clientelist” networks and the others, deprived of support. Since the early 2000s, low‑income citizens have rallied against the development of “discriminatory clientelism”35 in the redistribution of resources. The demands of globalized urban elites and the middle classes for more significant social and political reforms, which include upgrading the status of women, increasingly clash with alternative socio‑political visions defended by traditional religious and conservative actors competing for power.

25Indeed, cultural changes, and rapid transformations of attitudes, mindsets, and expectations are also emerging in the Gulf countries. Economic globalization, the mobility of elites and their children for studies, healthcare, discovery and pleasure trips are exposing citizens to transnational models of gender roles and well‑being. In addition, economic globalization is also penetrating family structures: the massive incorporation of foreign domestic workers in households, for example, brings on additional changes. Faced with the need for child and home‑based medical care, confronted to the aging of family members, the Emiratis interviewed by the authors Froilan Malit, Mouawiya Al Awad and Kristian Alexander attributed structural importance to foreign domestic workers in the functioning of the family unit, in the context of the disengagement of governments from many redistributive functions. Aside from satisfying a need for specialized services, the employment of several foreign persons also promotes family prestige and enhances the status of the women of the household. At the head of a team of foreign servants, women rule over what can be considered a domestic business. However, the employment patterns of foreign domestic workers, and by extension the family structures of the Gulf, are also part of a macro‑political framework, that of bilateral relations between the UAE and the labour‑sending countries. Families, therefore, are actors in the process of dependency creation implied by these asymmetric and imbalanced schemes of bilateral relations.

Families, women, politics, nationalism

  • 36 Thiollet, 2015; Hertog, 2015; Ben Nefissah & Destremau, 2011; Bonnefoy & Louër, 2015. Many referen (...)

26In this context, and as tensions were further exacerbated after 2011 as a result of the “Arab uprisings”,36 the family has become a target of popular debate and a focal point for measures or interventions from public and private organizations. Local or transnational NGOs, government actors, regional and international institutions, as well as various interest groups have invested in family programs. Despite their differences, discourses on the family in the region tend to agree on its role and quality of “basic social unit”, in accordance with Islamic values. Understood in this way, families also have a central role in protecting the cultural identity of Gulf societies, and in helping these societies cope with the reduction of public resources.

  • 37 Todd, 1983.
  • 38 « où la famille était présentée comme une expression fondamentale de l’univers dont la société pol (...)
  • 39 Todd, 1983, p. 13.

27The idea of a collusion between politics and the family is inscribed in a long and widely spread tradition of political thought, “from Confucius to Rousseau, from Aristotle to Freud”,37 “which presents the family as a fundamental expression of the universe where political society finds its anchor”.38 Family structures thus serve as a model for political structures and modes of government, while the relationship of authority within the family unit “… (between parents and children, between husband and wife) define the relationship of the individual to authority”.39

Gender relations and generations, issues and reforms

  • 40 Qatar General Secretariat for Development Planning, National Development Strategy for 2011–2016, D (...)
  • 41 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Vision 2030, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2016,, p.  (...)

28Qatar’s National Development Strategy for 2011–2016 and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 program are the blueprint for the economic and social reforms underway. Both call for strengthening the cohesion of family ties, while engaging in prudent measures for women's emancipation. For the Government of Qatar, “strengthening the cohesion of the family, the basis of Qatari society, the foundation for all aspects of Qatar’s social structure” is an essential pillar of the country’s development, along with the empowerment of women.40 The government planned for actions to “strengthen the role of marriage and family ties” and to reduce the number of divorces. In Saudi Arabia, the Vision 2030 program for reform also reaffirms the central role of the family and Islamic values, with women remaining “yet another great asset, with 50% of our university graduates being females”,41 to whom the country must guarantee equal access to opportunities and increased participation in employment. Certain political decisions made in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, which politically and culturally stigmatized the kingdom within the international community, have affected women’s status, e.g., the issuance of personal identity cards to Saudi women, as shown by Zina Sawaf. Specific categories of foreign nationals as well as children whose mothers are citizens of GCC countries have been granted social rights and, in some cases, citizenship. These measures break with past policies, which restricted the transmission of citizenship to the descendants in a paternal lineage.

  • 42 Fargues, 1995.

29Although the six GCC countries evolved at distinct paces throughout the pivotal decade of the 2000s, all initiated relatively similar socio‑economic reforms and social and family policies during this period. These focus principally on three of the normative institutions that constitute the foundations of the social, economic and political order of these rentier societies. The first is the distribution of power and control over the allocation of resources, anchored in lineage, that is patriarchal and autocratic in nature. The second is the monitoring of the status of foreigners and more generally, that of the “Other,” the migrant or the long‑term resident. The last is the status and role of women in society. Policies, therefore, respond to changes in demographic dynamics, which de facto questioned existing “hierarchies of gender and generations”42 — i.e., the domination of men over women and of seniors over youth — as well as the opening of Gulf societies to economic and cultural globalization. With the recognition that marriage is no longer universal and that divorces remain frequent, it is not only the stability but also the perpetuation of the Muslim family as the “basic unit of society” that is considered under threat.

30Social and family policies certainly aspire to rebuild social cohesion. Yet, they are also designed to mend the bonds of political allegiance between regimes and their populations, that have been severed by the weakening of States’ redistributive capacities, by neoliberal reforms, by economic and cultural globalization, and by political rivalries with former elites. The reform processes analysed in this issue appear simultaneously to aim to reconstruct and modernize, and to acknowledge change while at the same time, attempting to control it.

The “neopatriarchy”

  • 43 For example: Crystal, 1994; Al-Naqeeb, 1991; Beblawi & Luciani, 1990. The stability of the “client (...)
  • 44 Developed by H. Sharabi (1988).
  • 45 Brynen, 1995, p. 24-25.
  • 46 King Hussein of Jordan, Mohammed V of Morocco, and President Bourguiba when he accessed power in n (...)

31Many political scientists scrutinized the authoritarian tendencies of the Gulf region regimes, and their reliance on exceptional oil revenues.43 The anchoring of this authoritarianism in the structures of Arab societies and the parallel between the mode of macro‑political domination and the mode of power distribution within the family are illustrated in the theory of “neopatriarchy”44 or the notion of “neopatrimonialism”. The patrimonial system reproduces patriarchal‑like relationships at the level of the population as a whole: the Patriarch/leader/patron dispenses resources, social control, and security, in return for his children/subjects/clients' allegiance. “Neopatrimonialism differs from patrimonialism in that it variously combines and overlays the informal structures of patrimonialism with the formal and legal structures of the state […]”.45In such a system the family transmits social values and norms, and in so doing it reproduces institutions and perpetuates political structures of domination. The strengthening of patriarchal rule within the family — the “hierarchies of gender and generations” correspondingly strengthens the authority of “neopatriarchal” regimes in the region. Conversely, weakening the first weakens the second. In theory, therefore, the perceived interdependence between the neo‑patriarchal regime and the patriarchal family requires the State to protect family stability and control its evolution. This is especially the case because, in this power setup, social and political bonds are “naturalized” since they are inscribed in the specific register of kinship. For example, when claiming to be acknowledged as the “Father of the Nation”, Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates and other leaders in their respective countries46 were implicitly seeking to offset the arbitrariness of their political rule, rooting it in the natural, in the permanence of biology.

Categorizing the Other, the Lawful and the Desirable

  • 47 Hasso, 2011, p. 13-14.
  • 48 Parker, Russo, Sommer & Yaeger, 1992, p. 5.
  • 49 Massad, 1995, p. 470.

32Many authors have described the process of intervention on family structures in the context of post‑colonial political transitions. According to Frances Hasso, for example, “the postcolonial Middle East and North Africa states [...] were concerned with rationalizing and regulating family life, as well as reconstituting sexual and marital norms and behaviours. Such state‑initiated marriage and family projects are typically examined through reform or modernization lenses, or they are understood as primarily motivated by the patriarchal agendas of states”.47 The process of national construction also implies the elaboration of representations of the Other: “In the same way that ‘men’ and ‘women’ define themselves reciprocally (though never symmetrically), national identity is determined not on the basis of its own properties but as a function of what it (presumably) is not”.48 Thus, “the important task for anti‑colonial nationalists is not only to define gender roles in relation to each other (female–male), but also to define both in relation to the nationalist project and, in so doing, to dissociate the national identity from any colonial contamination”.49

  • 50 Mosse, 1985.

33This process of distinction/definition is carried out at other levels as well. For instance, it sets the criteria for a “respectable”,50 rational, and even “healthy” sexuality. A similar process is at work with the policies enacted in Gulf countries aiming to reform families, which intensively produce norms and standards defining the good vs. the bad or the lawful vs. the unlawful. As seen earlier, for instance, endogamous marriages, divorces, or the birth of children from a foreign father were designated as threats to public health, to social stability and even “sanity”.

“Tradition”, “modernization” and the “family crisis”

  • 51 Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1992.
  • 52 Massad, 1995.
  • 53 Anderson, 1991.

34Essential to this process of national construction is the “invention of tradition”,51 intended to satisfy claims for a “national culture” able to counter European influences.52 Within this realm, the patriarchal family model gains strength as it is artificially anchored in an imagined past, which creates a form of historic continuity of the nation‑building process. The control and reconstruction of power relations within the family, in accordance with representations stemming from an imagined “tradition,” allow integration of the figure of the neo‑patriarchal ruler in the social make‑up of the community (Gemeinschaft), as well as in the other attributes of the Nation.53 The political domination of the neopatriarchal rulers thereby gathers greater consensus, especially when they can claim religious arguments to strengthen their legitimacy. However, this process also triggers intense debates about the modernization of Islam. The diversification of political practices, of values promoted by the ruling regimes, must indeed always be legitimized and re‑inscribed within the realm of “tradition.”

  • 54 Al-Rasheed, 2013.

35Alexandre Caeiro’s analysis of the fatwas of the Qatari Ministry of Religious Affairs about family matters, published on the Islamweb site, illustrates this form of syncretism. The author demonstrates how cyber‑muftis in the Emirate have incorporated modern concepts such as a “self‑reliant” population, a productive and entrepreneurial workforce, as well as the knowledge economy. The author nevertheless argues that bureaucrats and experts envisage Islamic references as an “intangible heritage” to the societies of the region, as historical facts, rather than as resources or engines for social change. Conversely, in Saudi Arabia, where the alliance between two distinct powers, one political and the other religious, has produced an original form of “religious nationalism”,54 Saudi social workers prompt women to tap into Islamic values and norms to support their emancipation, as Zina Sawaf points out in this issue.

Family and politics in the Gulf Region: contribution of the current issue to the state of the arts

36“Young” leaders are, de facto or de jure, at the head of many of the Gulf nations today, e.g., Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Most are attempting to bring about sweeping reforms in response to the volatile political context of the decade of 2010. It is not surprising, therefore, that most contributors to the present issue have situated their analyses at the level of the “remote” determinants of family policies, i.e., the institutions as well as the nationalist projects and visions of the various stakeholders.

37Earlier we identified three major focal points within the discourses of social and family policies in the region: lineage and by extension, the father’s role in the family; the “foreigner,” or more broadly the “Other”; and women’s place and role in society. Yet, the various contributions reveal more disagreements than convergences on such topics, between regimes and within national societies.

38The stability of the family unit is considered paramount because it reflects that of society and the nation. Divorces, celibacy, marriages with foreigners are identified everywhere as destabilizing factors and are universally decried as social and political threats, a menace to the cohesion of the “community” (Gemeinschaft). However, the technocratic approach to development defended by every regime in the region also views these factors as detrimental to the functioning of the family as an economic unit. The family must be a stable, efficient and functional unit that takes care of its members, and a relay of the national development process.

39All fields and topics tackled in this volume highlight the tensions existing between modernization, the State, and social change. Anie Montigny’s review of the Qatari Constitution and its comparison with Qatar’s Family Code highlight the discrepancies between the apparent progressiveness of certain legislative texts. Alanoud Alsharekh points to the non‑application of legal provisions prohibiting discrimination against foreigners in Kuwait and the conflict between various “official” interpretations of religious texts. Zina Sawaf emphasizes that contradiction between existing legislative sources or diverging interpretations of these texts by institutions and political stakeholders generate adverse effects on women's rights. This is aptly illustrated in the case of Ṣamar, a Saudi woman placed in a sort of legal limbo when her husband refuses to divorce. She is left to struggle for her freedom without any support from Saudi institutions. More generally, the contributors demonstrate that while social development projects all promote the emancipation of women, they also maintain and even uphold discriminatory gendered practices, such as the institution of guarantor (wakīl) for Saudi women.

  • 55 See also Kassem & El Muftah, 2016.

40The patriarchal figure of the father is sometimes viewed as competing with the State’s ambition for the socio‑political control of families. Therefore, some countries enacted policies designed to weaken the cohesion of tribal groups and their corollary, the extended families. All authors also noted the shift from the ‘ayla as the privileged social unit, to the usra, the latter remaining easier to control because it is individualized. In Kuwait, Yagoub and Yousif Al‑Kandari uncovered disincentives to marriage between relatives presented as public health dangers. The authors indicate that these could reflect efforts to weaken extended family cohesion. Anie Montigny suggests that in Qatar, the allocation of building plots for young couples was aimed at promoting nuclear family structures whilst weakening tribal solidarities.55 In Saudi Arabia, as in all Middle Eastern countries, Zina Sawaf recounts that the national project is a project of “ḥaḍarīs.” Tribes have been settled, “folklorized,” restructured and infiltrated by the State. According to the author, the figure of the poor Bedouin is therefore particularly stigmatized by Saudi social workers, educated to promote a “modern” conception of Islam in the Kingdom.

41Françoise De Bel‑Air also observes a marked ruthlessness against the figure of the father in the Saudi social policy discourse (but not necessarily in practice, as Zina Sawaf remarks) and, by extension, against masculinity. In the wake of the debates on the issue of child brides, ongoing in the Kingdom since the mid‑2000s, fathers are regularly accused of pushing their daughters into early marriage out of cupidity, i.e., of “selling” their daughters to collect their dowry. Moreover, recent actions against conjugal violence de facto infiltrate or “desacralize” the privacy of domestic space. The State intervenes everywhere and seems to be trying to gain control over the family through women. Zina Sawaf shows that granting women individual identification and administrative documents emancipates them, at least in theory, from paternal or spousal control. In Qatar, Alexandre Caiero also reveals substantial challenges to paternal authority in the answers given by cyber‑muftis of Qatar’s Islamweb to online users, although to a lesser extent than in Saudi Arabia. In the Kingdom, apparently more than in Qatar, governmental social institutions promote women’s emancipation from their family group and their individual empowerment in discourse, if not in practice. Indeed, Anie Montigny remarks on the greater responsibility attributed to Qatari women in the resolution of marriage dysfunctions. Women are also often blamed in the event of a divorce.

  • 56 Al-Rasheed, 2013.

42More generally, the differences in social policies observed from one country to another may reflect divergences in national (re) construction processes. Anie Montigny argues that the Qatari regime could be defined as a “modernized neopatriarchy”. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, seems to be in a phase of transition from a “masculine state”56 (not neopatriarchal because of the dual power ruling over this country until recently), to a paradoxically more individualistic model of society.

43The articles included in this volume, therefore, assert that “women and family issues” are not the ultimate targets of policies. They are instead a means of influencing or protecting political institutions. Indeed, should we read the paradoxes and contradictions of measures for the emancipation of women, for instance, as unintended effects of a real strategy to effectively transform these institutions? Alternatively, do policies’ setbacks signal the willingness of Gulf regimes to remain in‑between change and continuity, in an attempt to satisfy both the proponents of change and those who prefer the status quo? Do these tensions reflect conflicts between local actors competing for power, or do they signal the infiltration of foreign entities into the processes of nation‑building in the region? Do foreign government employees in small countries like Qatar, NGO activists and international institutions solely support States’ policies on women and family issues, or are they the instruments of the growing and imposed incorporation of Gulf countries into economic and cultural globalization? These questions need further investigation, and more studies on these topics are needed, in order to understand better the political stakes of the rapid social mutations taking place in the Gulf region.

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3 The United Arab Emirates (HDI=0,863) and Qatar (HDI=0,856) registered very high HDIs in 2017, followed by Saudi Arabia (HDI=0,853), Bahrain (HDI=0,846), Oman (HDI=0,821) and Kuwait (HDI=0,803). Source: UNDP;

4 UNESCO data, in the World Bank database: <>.

5 Statistics emanating from the Gulf region are often scarce and, when available, are not always reliable. They do not allow for comparing socio-demographic trends in time and between countries. This remains especially true for the two most populated Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, despite recent efforts in these countries to adopt internationally-recognized statistical good practices and classification systems. Statistical apparatuses in Kuwait and Bahrain are more reliable, and both countries have been completing nationwide population censuses on a regular basis. Until the Iraqi invasion in the 1990s Bahrain had been collecting this data since 1941 and Kuwait since 1957 (Safar, 2015).

6 This was the case until the 2000s. Since the 2010s, female economic participation is strongly encouraged in GCC states (see below).

7 See for example: Mosse, 1985; Anderson, 1991; Parker, Russo, Sommer & Yaeger, 1992 or Ginsburg & Rapp, 1995; Celello & Kholoussy, 2016. On the Arab world: Massad, 1995; Sharabi, 1996; Hasso, 2011.

8 Bourdieu, 1993.

9 Hasso, 2011.

10 Based on Gulf Family Health Surveys (GFHS), a survey program on fertility rates conducted in the Gulf between 1995 and 1998. See for example: Courbage, 1994; 1995; Tabutin & Schoumaker, 2005; Winckler, 2009; Creton, 2012; De Bel-Air, 2012; Safar, 2015.

11 In the case of Saudi Arabia: Khraif, 2001; Abdul Salam, 2013.

12 Saudi Demographic Surveys of 1987 and 2016.

13 Creton, 2012, p. 72.

14 Fargues, 2000, p. 118–119.

15 The probability of marriage decreases with time since procreation remains its primary objective.

16 Civil status registrations indicate that only 10% (Bahrain) and 14% (Qatar) of the marriages concluded in 2014 involved a foreign groom and a female citizen. For Qatar, see also Alharahsheh, Mohieddin & Almeer, 2015.

17 According to Qatar’s civil registration office, 75% of marriages involving a Qatari woman and a foreign man in 2014 were concluded with a GCC national, whereas only 36% of the foreign spouses of Qatari males were GCC nationals that year.

18 According to Child Health Surveys (Jurdi & Saxena, 2001, table 4).

19 MDPS, 2017: 17.

20 Even if this is more prevalent within the middle classes and has less influence amongst the aristocracy (Dresch, 2006).

21 The ratio of married women to married men (only for Gulf nationals) returned a rate of 100.4 married women per 100 married men in Saudi Arabia (2016), 103 in Kuwait (2015) and 105 in Qatar (2010). The ratio reached 114 married women per 100 married men in Oman in 2010 (national demographic surveys 2010). Nevertheless, new forms of polygamous “non-conventional” unions are witnessed in the region, most notably the misyār marriage (Yamani, 2008; Safar, 2015).

22 Number of divorces per 100 marriages concluded in 2015. Divorces generally occur within two years following the signature of the marriage contract in all of the countries of the region and often before the consummation of the union (e.g. 30% of divorces recorded in Qatar in the late 2000s).

23 Fargues, 2000, p. 127.

24 Patai, 1971.

25 For example, the hadith: “Marry those who are loving and fertile, for I will be proud of your great numbers before the other nations.”

26 Abd El Ati, 1977.

27 A “rent” is an income earned from natural resources or trading of strategic resources, as opposed to income earned from capital or labour.

28 Fargues, 2000, p. 102–107.

29 The UAE and especially Qatar, are less affected by these evolutions than Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, see Dazi-Héni (2006, 2017). For a political history of the Gulf countries or a political economic analysis see Aarts & Nonneman, 2006.

30 One example is the decade-long process and conditions by which Saudi Arabia joined the WTO (mid-1990s to 2005).

31 Louër, 2015.

32 Destremau et al., 2013.

33 See for example Louër, 2008 for a study of Bahrain.

34 The historical perspective is limited to the oil era and to the societies that developed in this context. We should note that the “rentier state” theory which supports our analysis has been criticized by some authors, especially regarding the link made between the capture of non-productive income by regimes and their autocratic resilience (see footnote 43).

35 Hertog, 2006, p. 120.

36 Thiollet, 2015; Hertog, 2015; Ben Nefissah & Destremau, 2011; Bonnefoy & Louër, 2015. Many references regarding the Arab Spring and its implications for the Arab Peninsula region are found in these publications.

37 Todd, 1983.

38 « où la famille était présentée comme une expression fondamentale de l’univers dont la société politique devait elle-même s’inspirer » (Commaille & Martin, 1998, p.18).

39 Todd, 1983, p. 13.

40 Qatar General Secretariat for Development Planning, National Development Strategy for 2011–2016, Doha, Qatar, 2011., p. 16 and p. 165–177.

41 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Vision 2030, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2016,, p. 37.

42 Fargues, 1995.

43 For example: Crystal, 1994; Al-Naqeeb, 1991; Beblawi & Luciani, 1990. The stability of the “clientelist” and authoritarian-neo-patrimonial regimes of the region is said to depend on the redistribution by the State of rentier-type resources, which made it possible to negotiate minimal political participation of the citizens in exchange for the limited recourse to direct taxes, leading to the aphorism "no representation without taxation" (Beblawi, 1990, p. 89). In addition to tax exemption, resources are also redistributed as direct subsidies of goods and services.

44 Developed by H. Sharabi (1988).

45 Brynen, 1995, p. 24-25.

46 King Hussein of Jordan, Mohammed V of Morocco, and President Bourguiba when he accessed power in newly independent Tunisia, all made claims in similar terms during their mandates.

47 Hasso, 2011, p. 13-14.

48 Parker, Russo, Sommer & Yaeger, 1992, p. 5.

49 Massad, 1995, p. 470.

50 Mosse, 1985.

51 Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1992.

52 Massad, 1995.

53 Anderson, 1991.

54 Al-Rasheed, 2013.

55 See also Kassem & El Muftah, 2016.

56 Al-Rasheed, 2013.

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Françoise De Bel-Air, Jihan Safar et Blandine Destremau, « Marriage and Family in the Gulf Today: Storms over a patriarchal institution? »Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 10 | 2018, mis en ligne le 23 janvier 2019, consulté le 17 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Françoise De Bel-Air

Socio‑demographer, Researcher and Consultant

Jihan Safar

Socio‑demographer, Researcher at the GLMM

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Blandine Destremau

Sociologist, CNRS Research Professor (Iris / EHESS)

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