Saudi Arabia approved a law regulating marriage between its citizens and foreigners after several years of haggling because of widening rifts among law makers on the landmark law, the official media reported on Tuesday.
The law allowed Saudis to have foreign spouses but stipulated that they need prior approval by a new government committee which could take up to three months to decide whether to agree or reject the request.
Under the law, the marriage must be in line with Islamic rules and the couple must be free of any serious diseases, should not be drug addicts and the age gap between them must not exceed 25 years.
After a lengthy debate on Monday, the Shura council, the Gulf Kingdom’s appointed parliament, ratified the law which gave Saudis the right to have spouses from the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
A Saudi man or woman seeking to marry from outside the Kingdom or the GCC must submit an application to a government committee to be created shortly by the ministries of interior, foreign affairs, justice and social affairs. The committee also comprises representatives from the Saudi Human Rights Commission.
“After receiving the application, the committee will present its proposal to the minister of interior to decide on the application three months after it is submitted to the committee,” the official Saudi press agency said.
“Those who violate the new rules on the marriage of Saudis to non-Saudis or non-GCC citizens will be fined a maximum SR100,000 ($26,500) to be deposited with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and credited to the ministry of social affairs, which will allocate the funds to help Saudi men seeking to marry.”
Experts described the law as a policy turnaround in the conservative Moslem nation and reverses recent calls to introduce tougher curbs on mixed marriage.
They said the new law would help reverse an upward trend in the number of spinsters in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.
Official data showed Saudi Arabia had around 1.8 million unmarried national women above 30 years old and that their number could exceed four million in the next four years. Officials attributed the problem to the fact that many Saudi men prefer foreign wives despite the existing curbs due to the high wedding expenses and dowries demanded by national spouses.
Another reason is the high divorce rate among Saudis, standing at 18,000 cases in 2010, nearly 30 per cent of the total 60,000 marriages last year.
The new law is a reversal of a recent tendency by Riyadh to introduce harsher laws against mixed marriage
The Kingdom, which controls over 20 per cent of the world’s oil, already enforces controls governing the marriage of Saudis with foreigners.
Before it was ratified by Shura on Monday, the marriage law faced reservations from the country’s human rights groups, which had demanded the cancellation of the proposal to deprive those involved in mixed marriage from government loans because such a move will also affect the relatives of the spouse.
According to a Shura member, around 700,000 Saudi women are married to foreigners but their husbands and children are deprived of most government benefits granted to Saudis. The new law is expected to end this practice.
“The Shura is also considering a draft law to grant Saudi citizenship to foreign husbands of Saudi women if they meet specific terms,” Shura member Sadqa Fadel said, quoted by the Arabic language daily Almadina.
“These include the need to get children, the continuation of marriage for many years and the need for the foreign husband to prove his good intention towards his Saudi wife and to treat her nicely.”