In Saudi wed­dings, small is now the new beau­ti­ful

The Phnom Penh Post - - LIFESTYLE - Anuj Cho­pra

IT WAS a Saudi wed­ding like any other – clutch­ing a dec­o­ra­tive sword, the groom bobbed and swayed in a tra­di­tional dance. But there was one strik­ing dif­fer­ence – a tiny guest list.

Wed­dings in the oil-rich king­dom are typ­i­cally lav­ish af­fairs, with a bulging guest list which is seen both as a so­cial obli­ga­tion and a sym­bol of af­flu­ence.

Such ex­pec­ta­tions are of­ten a source of eco­nomic strain for grooms, who foot most of the bill which in­cludes rent­ing out ex­or­bi­tantly-priced mar­riage halls where nup­tial cel­e­bra­tions are usu­ally held.

But mil­len­ni­als like Basil Al­bani are in­creas­ingly host­ing wed­dings at home, de­fy­ing fam­ily tra­di­tions and so­cial pres­sure and mak­ing huge sav­ings in­stead.

Fewer than two dozen close rel­a­tives and friends were in­vited to the 26-year-old in­sur­ance ex­ec­u­tive’s re­cent wed­ding feast com­pris­ing kabsa – a tra­di­tional rice and meat dish – at his an­ces­tral home in western Jed­dah city.

It was a mi­cro­scopic fig­ure by Saudi stan­dards.

“Peo­ple go all crazy with wed­dings, invit­ing hun­dreds of guests and spend­ing mil­lions in one night to get the best singers, best bands, best thobes,” said Maan Al­bani, the 21-year-old brother of the groom, dressed in a gold-trimmed cloak.

“We wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent with a smaller cel­e­bra­tion at home, which can also be fun.”

Life­style down­grade

Al­though preva­lent for years, home wed­dings sym­bol­ise a war on ex­cess by the coun­try’s youth as much as they are a barom­e­ter of the lag­ging econ­omy.

They ap­pear to be gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in the petro-state in a new age of aus­ter­ity amid low crude prices.

Saudi Ara­bia has one of the world’s high­est con­cen­tra­tions of su­per rich house­holds.

But with cuts to cra­dle-tograve sub­si­dies and a new value-added tax amid soar­ing youth un­em­ploy­ment, Saudi house­holds are see­ing stag­nat­ing dis­pos­able in­comes and what ex­perts call a life­style down­grade.

The change in for­tunes in the once tax-free king­dom fac­ing a youth bulge is a stress point that poses a chal­lenge for Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, the coun­try’s de facto leader.

And there are signs of an im­pact on the Saudi wed­ding mar­ket.

An­nual spend­ing on mar­riages in the king­dom ex­ceeds two bil­lion riyals ($533 mil- lion), the high­est in the Arab world, or­gan­is­ers of the Saudi in­ter­na­tional wed­ding fair said last year.

Sta­tis­tics on fru­gal home mar­riages are hard to come by, but two wed­ding plan­ners with a large Saudi clien­tele said av­er­age spend­ing on mar­riages had dropped by 25 per cent over the past year, with many trim­ming back the pomp and pageantry.

A re­tailer of wed­ding in­vi­ta­tion cards in Riyadh said busi­ness fell by 70 per cent over the pe­riod, as many cus­tomers de­mand rich de­signs at cheaper prices.

Fam­ily feud

“Wed­dings should not start with a bank loan,” said Mur­tada al-Abawi, a 29-year-old Uber driver.

It typ­i­cally costs 80,000 riyals to rent a wed­ding hall and pay for the dowry and bridal ac­cou­trements – in­clud­ing gold and makeup – a price Abawi was un­will­ing to pay.

He cre­ated a fam­ily storm when he sug­gested a small soiree in the lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­tre for his own wed­ding in 2016.

A phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tion broke out with his elder brother, who branded the idea shame­ful be­cause “peo­ple will call us poor”.

His par­ents and those of the would-be bride were equally fu­ri­ous but, ul­ti­mately, they all caved when Abawi can­nily re­sorted to emo­tional black­mail.

He threat­ened to re­main un­mar­ried and flee to neigh­bour­ing Bahrain, a rel­a­tively lib­eral ar­chi­pel­ago that many con­ser­va­tive Saudis view as a seedy off­shore Las Ve­gas.

Abawi put his foot down: no dowry, no gold, no post-wed­ding party.

For the main wed­ding party, he used an­other ploy – he in­vited all his friends and rel­a­tives so as not to of­fend any­one, but hosted the late- evening cel­e­bra­tion on a busy week­night, forc­ing fam­i­lies with school-age chil­dren to vol­un­tar­ily opt out.

The wed­ding, ul­ti­mately, cost only 9,000 riyals.

The ex­pe­ri­ence led Abawi to start an “af­ford­able mar­riage” self-help group in his na­tive east­ern cit y of Al Ahsa, which coun­sels young men on tackl i ng t he so­cia l pressu re to over­spend.

Cul­tural mine­field

Not ev­ery­one is cut­ting wed­ding ex­pen­di­ture, how­ever, with many Saudis still splurg­ing on de­signer prom dresses for the bride and belly dancers from Egypt for the en­ter­tain­ment.

Many still suc­cumb to the pres­sure – or choose to get hitched over­seas to cir­cum­vent the cul­tural mine­field that host­ing a small wed­ding can be­come.

In a 2017 news­pa­per col­umn ti­tled “Ex­pen­sive wed­dings, a waste of money”, writer Ab­dul Ghani al-Gash chided the king­dom’s re­li­gious schol­ars for fail­ing to ed­u­cate the masses that wed­dings were not an oc­ca­sion to show off.

Wed­dings, typ­i­cally seg­re­gated by gen­der, are also known for wast­ing colos­sal amounts of food. Moun­tains of food, which cul­tur­ally re­flect gen­eros­ity and class, of­ten end up in the trash can.

The pres­sure to keep up ap­pear­ances amid ris­ing costs and un­em­ploy­ment is prompt­ing many young men to de­lay mar­riage up to the age of 40, the Saudi Gazette news­pa­per re­ported in Septem­ber.

But even Saudis who can af­ford to splurge are dis­cov­er­ing an aes­thetic value in sim­plic­ity and cut­ting back waste.

“My wife looks back at our wed­ding and says ‘why did we even spend 9,000 riyals?’” said Abawi.

“We could have trav­elled with that money.”


Basil Al­bani holds a tra­di­tional sword and dances with his friends dur­ing his wed­ding at his home in the Red Sea re­sort of Jed­dah.


Basil Al­bani poses at his home dur­ing his wed­ding in Jed­dah.

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