AMMAN, Jordan – He may work in a sweets shop here in the capital, but Jad Mohamed is hardly excited about Valentine’s Day.
At age 28, he’s unmarried, and in Jordan that means that although he can have a girlfriend, it's culturally impermissable for the two of them to spend time alone together.
“It’s not easy to have a girlfriend. My mother and father are open-minded, but just a little,” he said.
Casual dating is still a fledgling and taboo trend here, so before a couple can consummate their relationship or even share a kiss, they must first get married. But tying the knot in the Middle East requires the man to have his own home, which means he must be financially secure. With Jordan and many countries in the region facing serious economic troubles, many young Arabs are finding their intimate lives delayed until they reach their early 30s.
While the pattern has left many frustrated youths, it’s also helping to slow the population explosion and reflects changing social preferences among young people who want to gain more work experience before marrying.
The marriage age has been gradually increasing for the last 40 years, “but during the last 10 years it’s become more and more salient,” said Majduddin Khamesh, a professor of sociology and Arab society studies at the University of Jordan in Amman.
A generation ago, Jordanian men usually married in their early 20s and women in their late teens, said Dr. Khamesh. Now, it’s more common for men not to marry until they’re in the their late 20s or early 30s, while women now wait until their mid-20s.
Over the last several years, Jordan has experienced abnormally high inflation, rising at a rate of 14.9 percent last year. While this has affected the price of everything from food to basic services, Jordanians say housing costs in particular have skyrocketed. In the last five years, housing prices in certain areas of Amman have more than doubled. Now even those with good jobs are having trouble affording a home of their own.
Next door, many young Iraqis are facing the same problems, as the issue of employment as it relates to marriage has become a focalpoint with the improvement in the security situation. In the lead up to the nation’s provincial elections which took place on Jan. 31, Laith Hashim Rahman, a 21-year-old Iraqi student, said that politicians had adequately addressed the nation’s security problems and now it’s time to begin working on social issues.
“Now we hope that [politicians] will support young people by helping us find jobs,” Rahman said. “If I can get a job, I can get married, and have sex.”
With unemployment rates in Iraq currently between 23 and 38 percent, Iraqi youths will likely need some patience.
Palestinians embroiled in the region’s other prominent conflict confront similar dilemnas, with an unemployment rate of 16.3 percent in the West Bank and 41.3 percent in Gaza as of June.
“I want to get married, but I can’t afford it,” said Mohamed Ibrahim al-Tamer, a 28-year-old Palestinian who works at an Internet café in Amman. Five months ago, al-Tamer left his home in the West Bank hoping he could save enough money in Amman to get married. Although he holds a degree in mechanical engineering, al-Tamer says he’s only been able to find odd jobs since graduating in 2001.
Even if Middle Eastern nations resolve their economic troubles, Arab society may have to adapt to a longer wait before marriage as young people are now required to compete in the global marketplace, Khamesh said.
“Prior to entering the economy the youth needs to get a lot of skills and training, especially IT and language skills, to be able to get a good job and get ahead,” he said.
Additionally, many young women in urban areas are now interested in gaining work experience before they enter into marriage. Yasmin Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Jordanian who works in a women’s accessory shop, said a few decades ago she likely would have been married already, but today she’s happy to be single.
“I want to work so I can help my family,” she said, adding she hopes to get married when she’s 24 or 25 years old.
The rising marriage age has also helped to indirectly address the region’s population growth, which has strained the Middle East’s limited resources, like water and agricultural land. With people marrying up to 10 years after the previous norm, they now have fewer children. Since 2001 the birthrate in Jordan has fallen from 25.44 births per 1,000 people to 20.13.
Still for those waiting to start their love life, that’s cold comfort.
“I’m too old not to be married. I should have gotten married when I was 20 or 21,” said Mohamed, estimating that it would be another two or three years before he had saved enough money to get hitched.
More Valentine's Day dispatches:
Afghanistan: Love in the time of Taliban
BeNeLux: Is chocolate recession-proof?
Ghana: Cocoa crops threatened by disease
India: A million Romeos, a million Juliets
Italy: Beneath Juliet's balcony
Nigeria: Love helps couple cope with HIV
Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of forbidden romance