MUSCAT (Reuters) - Office receptionist Sheikha's 2005 wedding was an extravagant 700-guest affair at one of Oman's top luxury hotels.
Besides spending 38,000 rials ($99,068) on the celebration, her groom also paid a 9,000-rial dowry, bought a new apartment for the couple and spent several thousand on their honeymoon.
"I was married like a princess and within three years abandoned like a beggar," said Sheikha, who asked that her last name not be used. "Our arguments began with my husband blaming me for his debts."
Sheikha's husband, like many Omani men, had taken out a bank loan to finance wedding expenses, which are traditionally the domain of the groom. The financial strain weighed on the couple and, against Sheikha's wishes, the pair were divorced in 2008.
She kept her dowry, which brides usually spend on jewelry, clothing and property, and little else. Her husband was left saddled with the accumulated debts that began at that wedding.
"More than half of Omani men earn, monthly, under 700 rials. It's impossible for them to finance their wedding. Eventually they get themselves into a debt quagmire within the early years of a marriage," legal advocate Mohammed al-Shahri.
"The majority of divorces occur due to underlying financial issues and although dowry may not be the direct cause of a divorce, it acts as a catalyst for fuelling financial tension and personal disputes."
The steep costs of financing weddings, which forces many young men to remain unmarried, cropped up during violent protests that rocked Oman this year as political turmoil spread across the Arab world.
In addition to protests calling for better pay, jobs and an end to graft in the Gulf Arab state, demonstrators also wanted government action to set up a marriage fund to help young couples meet spiraling marriage costs.
Oman's Shura Council, the quasi-parliamentary advisory body, has proposed the creation of a Marriage Support Fund which would provide interest-free loans to those in need as well as counseling and advisory services -- mainly advising Omanis to have cheaper weddings and lower dowries.
"We have reached a stage where we cannot get married," said demonstrator Abdullah Alabri, 27. "We kept competing with our peers and now we are begging the government for help."
People who earn less than 500 rials per month are eligible to apply for the 4,000 rial loans. But the proposal may not help make a significant dent in current costs.
The trend of lavish weddings began during the 1980s and has created a demographic imbalance by encouraging Omani men to marry foreign women, perceived as less likely to demand high dowries or weddings.
Omani weddings can cost 30,000 rials while dowries reach up to 15,000 rials. In the country's interior, that figure can be as high as 30,000 rials. The bride's family sets the dowry price and the bride typically has little say in the matter.
"High dowries are demanded in the interior cities such as Buraimi and Ibri due to existing tribal ideas and social pressure," said Abdul Jalil, an Omani who works at a petroleum firm. A low dowry arouses suspicion that something is 'wrong' with the girl, making higher dowries a matter of pride, he added.
"I was a lucky man," he said. "I worked for five years before I got married and used my entire savings in financing my marriage. Each member of my family contributed either in the form of fridges, cooks, or wedding halls."
Editing by Lin Noueihed