The Wedding Shortage

Navtej Dhillon
Navtej Dhillon Former Brookings Expert

March 1, 2007

Hizbullah may be calling protesters into the streets of Beirut. But Mazen Younes, a 26-year-old Lebanese marketing researcher, is more interested in getting married. Having a job that pays $2,000 a month–three times more than average–has a lot to do with it. That means, he says, “I may be able to marry before turning 30.”

Contrast his situation with that of George Thabet, a 34-year-old Egyptian accountant who earns less than $300 a month–half of which goes to commuting costs. As an only son, he also has to support his aging parents. For him, matrimony is a frustratingly elusive dream.

Marriage, long the centerpiece of Middle Eastern life, is in crisis. The reason: a new generation of young men cannot afford to marry–a fact that’s destined to exacerbate many of the region’s social and political problems. Little more than a decade ago, 63 percent of Middle Eastern men married by their late 20s. Today the figure is just over 50 percent. Iran brings up the rear, at 38 percent, with the swathe of Maghreb between the Levant and Morocco only marginally better. Contrast that to Asia, which leads the nuptial race with 77 percent of men aged 25 to 29 being married, followed by 69 percent in Latin America and 66 percent in Africa.

The consequences of these trends are profound. In most Arab countries, a bachelor’s life is devoid of economic and social opportunities. Marriage remains the path to adulthood, social status and legitimate sexual relationships. In contrast to Americans and Europeans, the majority of Arab men in their late 20s are not staying single by choice. They are forced into it by circumstances.

Marriage is so critical to Egyptians, for example, that they spend some $3.8 billion annually on it. (That’s more than the $2 billion in U.S. economic aid the country receives each year.) Most of these costs are borne by the groom–approximately $6,000 for a wedding, or four and half times the average annual income. And while marriage costs have risen with inflation over the years, incomes have been largely stagnant since 1985. With youth unemployment exceeding 30 percent, growing numbers of young Middle Eastern men face serious financial obstacles to getting married, especially in early adulthood. Moroccan men nowadays marry at an average age of 32–seven years later than the previous generation.

Changing lifestyle expectations compound the problem. Few young people, these days, want to get married in traditional street tents. Dowries increasingly involve long lists of consumer goods. Newlyweds want homes of their own, instead of living with their parents. Western media dangles the good life before them, but most have no means of realizing it.

If the key to a stable Middle East is that children aren’t worse off than their parents, then trouble is brewing. “The future in large part depends on the opportunities provided to young people, and at the moment we are nowhere close to solving this challenge,” says Tarik Yousef, dean of the Dubai School of Government. Young men stranded between tradition and modernity tend toward volatility, radicalism and anger. They cannot afford to marry, yet religion and social custom bar sex outside marriage. They are expected to care for aging family members, yet can scarcely take care of themselves. Financial independence and marriage remain the mark of manhood and social standing, yet it is increasingly difficult to attain. In a part of the world where 60 percent of the population is under 25, this is a social time bomb.

The implications have not been lost on Middle East radicals. In Jordan, the Islamic Brotherhood offers free mass marriages and interest-free loans to young newlyweds. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad built his popularity by offering grants to young people getting married. In Egypt, the religious establishment is waging a war of morality against couples who take matters into their own hands by opting for urfi –a common-law marriage that sidesteps the costs of standard marriage and serves as a cover for premarital sex. Meanwhile, growing numbers of young men are opting out–literally–by emigrating to Europe or other countries where they hope to find jobs and build nest eggs. Most say they plan to return home, one day. Many never do.

For the most part, U.S. and European policymakers have ignored this marriage gap. And yet, it is one of the decisive trends shaping the region. “Those youths in the streets of Beirut are not just fighting for political change,” says Mazen Younes. “They are asking about their own future.”