RIYADH (Reuters) – A Saudi Arabian charity is spending millions of dollars helping people get married in mass ceremonies because inflation has put wedding costs beyond the reach of many would-be couples in the oil-rich kingdom.
On Tuesday night just over 800 men congregated at a conference centre in Riyadh to celebrate marriages contracted at the expense of a charity organization headed by Riyadh governor Prince Salman and various business sponsors.
“Tonight 24 million riyals ($6.40 million) has been spent on this project,” Prince Salman said in a short speech. “Pious charity is the way of this state and this people.”
Some social commentators and clerics who administer an austere version of Islamic law fear young people may not be prepared to wait until they have enough money to marry and will engage in a physical relationship anyway.
Dressed in spruce cream-colored robes, the young men and their brides — absent due to traditional gender segregation — have been given furniture for their marital homes, two nights in a hotel, car insurance and part of their dowry for the bride.
Many of them said without the charity they would not have been able to afford marriage right now, not least because of inflation which hit 10.5 percent in April.
“Marriage can cost up to 100,000 riyals. Most people can’t afford that. To get a job, a house, a car — this is difficult,” said one of the young grooms, Fahd al-Dosary, 24.
Another, Ali al-Sharhani, 22, said fathers demanded money for their daughters’ dowries beyond the means of ordinary Saudis.
“You find homes that have five or six daughters who are not yet married. The problem of unmarried women has gotten bad in Saudi Arabia because of the cost of dowries,” he said.
Unrelated men and women cannot mix in public in most parts of the country, women cannot drive, alcohol consumption is banned and there are no cinemas. Despite this the religious authorities remain fearful young Saudis will adopt Western-influenced attitudes towards relationships.
“Young people today are in great need of you, especially in this time of difficulties and temptations,” Musa al-Uteibi told the gathering of friends, family and officials, speaking in the name of the grooms.
“Know that you are carrying out a great duty, since after God, it is you who has maintained the virtue of young people and building families.”
Mass weddings laid on by governments or charities to help disadvantaged young people settle down are not unusual in the Arab world but have not been that common in Saudi Arabia.
Tuesday’s wedding was the first of its kind in Riyadh. Another mass wedding is planned in Taif near Mecca on Saturday.