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Marriage and Family in the Gulf today

Mariage et famille dans le Golfe aujourd’hui

“Arabian Humanities” Journal No. 10, Spring 2018

Revue « Arabian Humanities » n° 10, printemps 2018

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Published on Wednesday, November 30, 2016


This issue of Arabian Humanities welcomes informative, critical and analytical, quantitative and/or qualitative contributions on family, marriage and demographic changes in the Arab Gulf States today, their diversity, paradoxes and idiosyncrasies, the (real or perceived) challenges facing families in the region, as well as, most importantly, the socio-political stakes in the current context of economic and political transition. Special attention should be devoted to the most recent, post-oil crisis period (since 2011). 



Families in the Arab Gulf region have experienced deep structural changes over the last decades. In particular, marriage and fertility, which constitute key events in family formation and in reproducing the social order, have undergone profound transformations. Fertility rates have dropped everywhere in the region and as a result family size has decreased. In addition to this, marriage patterns have changed tremendously. The norm of early and universal marriage has faded as women now get married over the age of 24 on average throughout the region, this in turn has helped to reduce the age gap between spouses. High divorce rates have contributed to a decrease in fertility rates while a new phenomenon, female celibacy, appeared in the 2000s, spurring a heated debate in Arab societies. The matrimonial market has also become increasingly globalized as the new public spheres and information technologies have allowed for significant numbers of people to marry foreign nationals. However, other dynamics, more in tune with the archetypal “extended, patrilineal, patrilocal, patriarchal, endogamous, and occasionally polygynous”, “traditional” Arab family, have also been observed. Rates of consanguineous marriages remain high in the region (30 to 50 percent of unions in the early 2000s). In spite of their sharp decrease in recent years, Gulf nationals’ fertility also display high levels (above 3 children per women in each country on average), if compared with those of countries with similar levels of female education or income.

The role of oil rent and the ensuing state subsidies to nationals (such as welfare packages, child allowances, free housing, healthcare and education) in alleviating the “costs” of children have been well documented. However, subsidies have contributed to disconnecting female education and economic activity, deemed financially unnecessary and socially unrewarding, as job positions outside the government sector were filled en masse by expatriates. As such, “rentier” wealth and female education have not resulted in delaying marriage and reducing fertility as they generally do. State sponsorship of universal marriage and high fertility was initially adopted in response to several political concerns: to offset the demographic imbalance between nationals and expatriates, to compete, in countries like Saudi Arabia, with other demographic powers in the region (Iran especially); and finally, to reproduce the socio-political order. Thus, strengthening patriarchal domination at the family level (the “hierarchies of gender and generations”) was seen as a prerequisite for consolidating the kind of “neopatriarchal” ruling systems in the region.

Yet since the 1990s, a complex set of domestic issues, regional tensions and international pressures have emerged: the demographic burden on the Gulf’s labour markets resulting from past high fertility, fluctuating oil prices, the emergence of unemployment -even poverty- among nationals, the globalisation of the Gulf economies and the expansion of political opposition. As a result, states in the region are compelled to carry out drastic reforms of their socio-economic systems. Among these, there is the nationalization of labour forces, the regulation of foreign labour and limiting welfare and subsidies for nationals (except, to a certain extent, in the UAE and Qatar), all of which pose a serious threat to the old social contract and to social cohesion. The demands of the globalised urban elites and the middle classes for socio-political reform and female empowerment clash with calls by poorer citizens to fight “discriminatory clientelism” in the distribution of resources, and with conservative religious actors seeking to counter social change and competing for power.

In this delicate context, family is more than ever the object of policies and the subject of public debates, involving civil society members and organizations, state actors, as well as transnational and international bodies. It is reaffirmed as the core of society and “the key building block of a society” in adherence to Islamic principles and values. Both the Qatar National Development Strategy (2011-2016) and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 Roadmap advocate the strengthening of family cohesion and women’s empowerment. For the Qatari government, “ensuring the continuity of cohesive families and large households is crucial to the national vision”, and the government’s objective is to develop a program that seeks to “[solidify] the role of marriage and family ties” and lower divorce rates within society. For the Saudis, women are “yet another great asset, [with] over 50 percent of [their] university graduates being female”, they are to be granted equal opportunities with men and an increased share in employment. Social rights and, in some cases, access to citizenship are also available to the children of Gulf mothers, as well as to select categories of foreign nationals: these measures mark a change in regard to previous strictly patrilineal descent- and kin-based access to citizenship rights.

This issue of Arabian Humanities welcomes informative, critical and analytical, quantitative and/or qualitative contributions on family, marriage and demographic changes in the Arab Gulf States today, their diversity, paradoxes and idiosyncrasies, the (real or perceived) challenges facing families in the region, as well as, most importantly, the socio-political stakes in the current context of economic and political transition. Special attention should be devoted to the most recent, post-oil crisis period (since 2011).

Possible areas of interest and scales of observation could be:

  1. Gulf families: Highlighting family structures nowadays and their determinants. Contributions could focus on current patterns and timing of marriage (celibacy, divorce, remarriage, polygamy, etc.), fertility, household formation and life course, gender and intergenerational relationships and modes of transmission of resources, co-residence and household structure, and other characteristics. The determinants of family-related factors could also be addressed: women (and men) participation rates in the labour force and their patterns, levels of education, socio-economic background, housing provision, migration patterns (for example, the effect of live-in domestic workers on parenting, on the fertility of Gulf citizens and their economic activity patterns), technology transfers (contraceptive methods, infertility treatments and assisted reproduction), for instance. Contributors may also examine representations of the family by Gulf nationals, and to what extent it is the result of a negotiation, constructed by the everyday interactions between various involved partners, kin- and non-kin. The contributions may use quantitative, large-scale datasets such as censuses, civil registration, fertility and family surveys, in order to establish convergences, as well as divergences in family behaviour or related indicators. Data of a qualitative nature (case-study), based on small-scale datasets may also be used.
  2. Individual, household, family, kinship, society and beyond. This section examines the intersections between the family and global socio-economic dynamics. Examples of areas of interest may be: how is kinship now connected with national identity in Gulf States? How can we interpret the resilience of endogamy and its shift towards matrilineal kinship? Along with a parallel rise in unions with non-Gulf foreign partners, what do such changes tell us about the evolutions of the patriarchal norms allegedly underlying the Gulf family? What is the role of the new public spheres, of the new information technologies, of increased education levels and of the current socio-economic challenges in defining spouse selection patterns, in residential mobility, in family life course and stability? How do the new economic current developments, among others, affect the perception of women’s reproductive role, by women themselves, by men, by other family members? For example, how are tensions between reproductive roles and labour participation dealt with? More generally, how does the current socio-economic context affect the “hierarchies of gender and generations”, namely, the patriarchal normative system? In view of the increase in life expectancy, how do less affluent families, as well as single adults, organise care for the elderly? Is childcare also becoming an issue in the Gulf? More generally, are we witnessing the emergence of extra-familial social protection and solidarity networks or bodies, and on which basis (religious, neighbourhood, workplace, governmental)? What inequalities are there in the distribution of state welfare services (socio-economic, spatial, etc.) and what are the consequences for family structures?
  3. Family-related policies, normative constructions and the reform process: In the post-oil rent current context, marked by demographic change, political tensions and the upheaval of economic systems, why and how is the family included in the reform process, what should its role be? Which issues are especially targeted, in public and private policy measures, as well as in public debates, and by which actors, for which (stated or not stated) purposes? Which representations of the ideal family emerge from these policy/ normative discourses? How do such normative discourses and measures effectively influence family structures and dynamics, and among which subsets of national populations?

Submission guidelines

Proposals should be sent by

3 January 2017

to: Françoise De Bel-Air (f_dba@hotmail.com), Jihan Safar (gsafar@hotmail.com)and Sylvaine Giraud (edition@cefas.com.ye).

Proposals will include additional data to identify the author (full name, institutional affiliation and position, institutional address, phone number and e-mail address), as well as an abstract of 300-500 words, including the main research question and argument, and the empirical basis of the proposed paper.

All those who send an abstract will be notified of the editors’ decision by mid-January 2017.

Once accepted, the deadline for submission of articles is end of May 2017. Authors are requested to meet the editorial guidelines of Arabian Humanities, available here or from the Editorial Secretary, Sylvaine Giraud (edition@cefas.com.ye).

Guest editors

  • Françoise De Bel Air
  • Jihan Safar
  • Blandine Destremau.


  • Tuesday, January 03, 2017


  • marriage, fertility, labour, globalization, post-oil crisis period, civil society, state policy, Arab Gulf States


  • Juliette Honvault
    courriel : jhonvault [at] yahoo [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Sylvaine Giraud
    courriel : edition [at] cefas [dot] com [dot] ye


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Marriage and Family in the Gulf today », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, November 30, 2016, https://doi.org/10.58079/wd2

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