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Considering global efforts at isolation, it would seem likely that marriage rates would have declined since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, data from Western countries suggests that the pandemic has led to fewer nuptials. Yet in Bahrain, curiously, people tied the knot more frequently in 2020, and economics may offer some insight into why.
Like many countries, Bahrain saw a decline in the general marriage rate between 2014 and 2020. The general marriage rate is the total number of marriages per 1,000 people over 15 years of age in the population. This measure offers a more accurate picture of the propensity to get married than total marriages as it controls for changes in population, and countries with high numbers of migrant workers and high birth rates, such as Bahrain, experience significant population volatility year to year. Moreover, the decline was very large: The 2019 general marriage rate in Bahrain, at 4.7, was 40% lower than it was in 2014, at 7.9, while total marriages fell by almost 30% during the same period.
General Marriage Rate and Total Marriages in Bahrain, 2014-20
It is likely that factors such as increasing education levels and workforce participation rates among women contributed to this trend, mirroring similar trends in other parts of the world. Professionalization leads to women delaying marriage, and it also leads to women being less likely to marry, as earning an independent income makes women less reliant on marriage as a source of economic security.
The coronavirus pandemic was expected to cause a sharp decline in marriage rates all over the world, for a host of reasons. First, lockdowns impede the process of getting to know prospective mates. Second, the joyous wedding party is an important part of marriage for most couples, and social distancing has prevented large gatherings. Third, people like to feel some measure of economic stability prior to getting married, while the pandemic has caused unprecedented levels of economic pain for those losing their livelihoods, and uncertainty for those fortunate enough to retain their jobs. Consequently, many people – globally – would be expected to either indefinitely delay marriage or cohabitate without getting married.
In Bahrain neither of those options are possibilities for most people. For most Bahrainis, the process of getting married is much closer to an arranged marriage than the drawn-out courting system that is more standard in many Western countries. Socializing between men and women is quite limited in Bahrain, and so it is normal for a married couple to barely know one another prior to tying the knot. Notably, this also means it is socially unacceptable for an unmarried couple to cohabitate, rendering it a nonviable alternative.
The prospective husband will typically decide on whom to propose marriage in concert with his parents, with his mother arguably playing a leading role because she has access to a large pool of prospective wives. The nominee will frequently be a member of the man’s kin group, such as a first or second cousin, because these are the women who are within the man and his family’s social group, and also because they are likely to be compatible socially and culturally. A proposal is made, which the woman considers and is free to accept or reject.
This system faces no significant impediment during a lockdown: Families are still meeting, albeit at a lower frequency; and the absence of the need for prospective life partners to get to know one another through visits to the movie theater and restaurant meals – and other typical courtship rituals common in the West – means that social distancing in Bahrain is virtually a nonissue.
Beyond this, in the economic domain, Bahraini citizens have been doing relatively well. High levels of public sector employment and an aggressive fiscal stimulus have combined to dull the economic pain that has otherwise been felt by people all over the world. Migrant workers in Bahrain have faced considerable economic distress, but they represent a very small percentage of marriages occurring in Bahrain.
Despite these differences between circumstances in Bahrain and elsewhere, one common aspect of marriage is that it often involves a significant financial outlay. In fact, in Bahrain, in addition to the sizable cost of the wedding party, honeymoon, and setup for post-nuptial living arrangements, there is also the mahr, which is loosely translated to “dower”: When Muslims marry, the man has a mutually agreed-upon material obligation to the woman due when the marriage contract is signed. While it can be any sort of mutually acceptable material item, it is most commonly a financial sum; in Bahrain, it is usually equivalent to several thousand U.S. dollars. The dower’s size typically rises with the bride’s socioeconomic class: Wealthy women can command dowers in excess of $20,000. The dower represents a large component of the total wedding costs that a prospective husband must plan for.
Quarterly Percentage Change in Marriages in Bahrain in 2020 Compared to 2019
There were drastic changes in the percentages of marriages in Bahrain during 2020 compared to 2019. In the first quarter of 2020, prior to the pandemic’s onset (the first documented case in Bahrain was in mid-February, and it took until late February for mandated social distancing), marriages proceeded at the same rate as in 2019. The second quarter, which featured the strictest restrictions (in late April, all nonessential commercial establishments were closed for two weeks), marriages were down significantly. However, by the fourth quarter, when many restrictions had been lifted, marriages were up almost 50% compared to 2019. This pattern suggests a process of actively delaying marriages in response to the logistical challenges posed by the pandemic.
Marriages in Bahrain by Dower Range, 2019-20
Looking at the dowers paid by husbands to their brides in 2019 and 2020 helps to explain this increase in marriages at the end of 2020. Nearly all the additional marriages involved dower payments between 1,000 and 1,999 Bahraini dinars (approximately $2,650 to $5,300). By Bahraini standards, this represents marriages between people whose socioeconomic class is slightly below average (the median dower in both 2019 and 2020 was in the range of 2,000 to 2,999 Bahraini dinars, or $5,300 to $7,800).
Putting these facts together, basic economic principles can help shed light on the shift in marriages in Bahrain. According to the law of demand, when the price of a good or service rises, demand for that good or service contracts, and vice versa. During the pandemic, the inability to hold extravagant wedding parties, or to book luxurious (and costly) honeymoons, has significantly lowered the price of marriage, and so all else being held constant, the law of demand would predict that there would be more marriages.
Moreover, some of the lockdown measures that have served as impediments to marriage in other countries, such as the difficulty in locating a suitable mate, have not been a factor in Bahrain. The lack of alternatives to marriage, such as an unmarried couple cohabiting, ruled out because they are socially unacceptable, also helps ensure that other factors that might have rendered the data less dramatic or reduced the explanatory force of law of demand considerations don’t come into play.
People were able to delay marriage for a few months, but initial data seems to suggest that economic forces began to play a strong role, making marriage more accessible for some Bahrainis. However, for those with greater means, for whom total wedding costs are likely to represent a lower percentage of total lifetime income, and who face lower liquidity problems in summoning the money required for marriage, the marriage rate has been unaffected by the pandemic.
From a societal perspective, a crucial question is the pandemic’s effect on the birthrate. Nurseries, schools, and many other institutions depend upon stability in cohort size for their systems to function. While there is no data yet, if a rise in the marriage rate helps Bahrain avoid a crash in the birthrate, a very painful adjustment may have been averted.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and the director of research at Derasat, Bahrain.
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