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New marriage laws set to boost Dubai’s wedding industry

Woman, bride, man Bride Club ME
This Indian wedding celebration was helped by Bride Club ME, a wedding inspiration website and concierge in the UAE
  • Dubai Courts launched civil marriage service for non-Muslim expats
  • Service is extension of UAE family law shake-up announced last year
  • Hotels and event planners expect business but not ‘wedding tourists’ 

Dubai hotels and wedding planners are preparing for an influx of new work following last week’s announcement that non-Muslim couples can marry in civil ceremonies run by local courts for the first time in the emirate’s history. 

Industry representatives told AGBI that, contrary to international reports, the new service is unlikely to open the door to wedding tourists from overseas, or turn Dubai into the “Las Vegas of the Middle East”, as the rules only apply to UAE residents.

“Dubai does things carefully – I don’t think it would want to become a Las Vegas, or even attract wedding tourists from around the world,” said Stefanie Heller, founder and managing director of Dubai event planner Jam Weddings.

“What it does want to do is attract expats and be a nice place for them to live in the long term. These changes will make it easier for non-Muslim expat couples to get married here in Dubai.” 

Until now, non-Muslim expats could not legally marry in the UAE and had to travel abroad to complete the official process of marrying: registering, signing paperwork or having a religious ceremony. Many then chose to return to Dubai and throw a wedding party. 

Under changes to UAE federal law that were announced in December and came into effect on February 3, men and women can marry – and divorce – in non-sharia civil ceremonies run by the UAE’s court services.

The new law is a nationwide extension of Abu Dhabi’s secular civil marriage system, introduced in November 2021 as part of Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court.  

The dedicated court is intended to provide a support service to residents of all religions, separate from the UAE’s state marriage system based on Islamic teaching (sharia).

The court hears cases related to marriage, divorce, paternity, custody, inheritance, and other situations for non-Muslims. 

Bride Club
Rhiannon Downie-Hurst, founder of Bride Club ME. Picture: Supplied

An estimated 5,000 expat couples had registered their marriage in the Civil Family Court as of November 2022, Abu Dhabi officials said at the time. 

Dubai Courts last week announced the introduction of a similar service and Ras Al Khaimah followed. 

The new law will result in more weddings in the emirates “because the process of conducting a legal marriage for non-Muslim expats has been made so much easier”, said Rhiannon Downie-Hurst, founder of Bride Club ME, an award-winning wedding inspiration website and concierge. 

“Some couples may have previously delayed getting married in the UAE or chosen to marry back in their respective countries due to legal complications or red tape. 

“With the new law, I foresee many more residents choosing to marry in this country that offers so many beautiful locations and options for a magical wedding.” 

She said her company has received “a slight increase” in enquiries in recent weeks, mainly from UAE-based couples.  

Hospitality group Accor is also expecting more weddings at its UAE hotels as a result of the new law.

The company operates more than 80 properties across the emirates, including the Raffles, Fairmont, Sofitel, Movenpick, Pullman, Novotel and Ibis brands. 

Accor senior vice-president of operations, Jonathan Sheard, told AGBI: “Destination weddings have always been a demand driver for our hotels in the UAE, especially for those located on the beach side.

“We can expect that the new marriage law will see a positive increase in this demand from residents looking to celebrate their wedding in the city in which they reside.”

The Middle East destination wedding market was worth an estimated $4.5 billion in 2019, and the UAE was the most favoured location in the region, according to research by Colliers International. Globally, the sector was worth around $90 billion that year.  

However, while many tourists have celebrated their nuptials in the UAE, they have not been, and are still not allowed to legally get married there unless at least one of them is a resident, even if they are both Muslim. 

For non-Muslims, marriage paperwork can be completed at some foreign embassies, but it depends on the applicant’s nationality and circumstances and can be “a bit of a headache”, according to Jam Wedding’s Heller. 

For Accor’s Sheard and other hoteliers, the change in law represents a significant opportunity to grow their wedding-related business by targeting expats. 

“As this law is recent, hotels may choose to create specific packages for residents in the near future should they feel it is required,” he said. 

Global hotel group Hyatt is also weighing up the opportunities the new law presents.

“It is hard to tell at this stage if it will have a direct impact on our Dubai hotels wedding and ballroom business, which is mostly shaped by large Emirati weddings and Indian destination weddings,” said Fathi Khogaly, area vice-president and cluster general manager for Hyatt Hotels in Dubai.

He added: “It is a great step for the UAE to offer non-Muslim couples an easy process to obtain a civil-marriage licence through the Dubai Courts.

“It highlights the country’s commitment to providing a welcoming and supportive environment for all.”

Heller said the UAE is “slowly becoming more Westernised, while still holding onto its cultural values”. 

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