How many wives can an Emirati have?

Quick Answer

Traditionally, Emirati men were legally allowed to have up to four wives at one time under Islamic law. However, in recent years there have been reforms to UAE personal status laws which have placed restrictions on polygamy. Currently, an Emirati man must meet certain conditions set by the court in order to take multiple wives, including proving he has the financial means to support all wives equally. Taking multiple wives without court approval is punishable by law.

Polygamy, the practice of having more than one spouse at a time, has long been permitted for men under Islamic law. The Quran allows Muslim men to marry up to four wives, provided they can support and treat all wives equally. This practice was widely accepted in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the past, with Emirati men commonly taking multiple wives. However, reforms to personal status laws in the UAE over the last two decades have made polygamy much more restricted.

This article will provide an overview of polygamy and marriage laws in the UAE. It will look at how views on polygamy have changed, what the current laws say about polygamy, and what restrictions are now in place for Emirati men who wish to take multiple wives. The key questions to be addressed are:

– What does Islamic law say about polygamy?
– What was the historical practice of polygamy in the UAE?
– How have attitudes changed towards polygamy in the UAE?
– What reforms have been made to marriage laws regarding polygamy?
– What restrictions are now in place for Emirati men wanting multiple wives?
– How easy is it to legally approve polygamous marriage today?

Polygamy in Islam

Polygamy was commonly practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia, with few limits on how many wives men could take. Islam regulated and limited this practice based on guidance in the Quran, the central religious text of Islam.

Verse 4:3 of the Quran says:

“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].”

This verse permits Muslim men to marry up to four wives provided they can support and treat all wives fairly and equally. At the time, this was intended as a restriction on unlimited polygamy and an improvement in women’s rights in 7th century Arabia.

Other verses in the Quran emphasise the importance of justice, equal treatment, and self-restraint in polygamous marriages. Islam permits polygamy but does not encourage it. Monogamy is considered the ideal model. Polygamy is only allowed under certain conditions and with the goal of social responsibility and welfare in cases like looking after widows and orphans.

The majority of Muslim scholars throughout history have permitted polygamy, considering it morally acceptable when practiced properly. However, polygamy has always been a sensitive topic with differing views within Islam. Some scholars argue the Quran only allowed polygamy as an exception for vulnerable women in society, not as a normal practice. Others say improvements in modern society regarding welfare and women’s rights make polygamy unnecessary.

Overall though, polygamy has traditionally been accepted in Islamic law and practice, within certain limits and guidelines.

Historical Polygamy in the UAE

Prior to the formation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, the practice of polygamous marriage was very common among men living in the region’s coastal communities, inland oases, and desert areas. Taking multiple wives was a well-established tradition, especially among wealthy men and leaders of tribes who could afford to support several wives.

In traditional Emirati society, men often married multiple wives for a variety of cultural and practical reasons. Marrying more than one wife was seen as demonstrating virility, wealth and status. Having several wives allowed men to form useful alliances between families and tribes. Polygamy was also believed to be important for increasing progeny to strengthen the tribe. At times, marrying widowed or divorced relatives (sororal polygyny) was done to keep wealth within the family.

Islam’s permission for men to marry up to four wives was used to justify the cultural practice of unrestricted polygamy in the UAE prior to unification. There were no laws restricting the number of wives Emirati men could take. It was socially acceptable for a man to have two, three or sometimes even more wives simultaneously.

While uncommon due to requiring greater wealth, some elite ruling sheikhs had harems with significantly more than four wives. For example, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, was said to have had six wives. His son and current ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan was born to his fifth wife.

Polygamy was the norm for Emirati Muslim men before the modern era. Wives were often closely related – cousins, nieces, sisters-in-law, etc. Taking foreign wives was less common until the oil boom in the 1960s brought an influx of immigrants.

Changing Attitudes Towards Polygamy

Attitudes towards polygamy in the UAE began changing as the country modernised and developed in recent decades. Several factors contributed to polygamy becoming less socially acceptable and more restricted under law:

Women’s education and empowerment – As more Emirati women became educated, entered the workforce and took on public roles, attitudes shifted against the traditional practice of unregulated polygamy which was seen as an injustice and form of female oppression in modern society.

Nationalism – There was a desire to limit polygamy as part of developing a modern national identity for the UAE after unification in 1971. Following other Arab countries, restrictions on polygamy were viewed as an appropriate reflection of modern values.

Demographic factors – Reduced infant mortality and extended life spans meant polygamy was no longer seen as necessary for producing children to sustain tribal populations. Lower male to female population ratios also reduced pressure for polygamy.

Wealth distribution – The oil boom generated immense wealth but also economic disparities. Limiting polygamy was considered important for ensuring more equitable distribution of wealth.

Legal reforms – Progressive jurists began pushing for legal reforms to marriage and personal status laws to restrict harmful practices like unregulated polygamy.

By the turn of the 21st century, public sentiment within the UAE viewed polygamy much less favourably. Most saw it as outdated, unnecessary and unfair to women in contemporary society. This paved the way for major legislative reforms around marriage and polygamy.

Reforms to UAE Marriage Laws

Up until the late 20th century, there were no codified laws governing marriage or marital rights in the Emirates. Rules came solely from Islamic sharia law and prevailing cultural norms which permitted polygamy. But beginning in the 1970s, a series of legislative reforms were introduced to regulate marriage practices and restrict polygamy:

1971 – Federal Law No.28

One of the first laws passed after the formation of the UAE was the 1971 Federal Law No. 28 on personal status. This law required registration of all marriages and divorces through the formal court system. One intention was to limit men taking multiple wives without any oversight. However, the law did not explicitly prohibit or restrict polygamy.

Marriage Fund law

In 1992, the UAE government established the Marriage Fund which provided married Emirati men 50,000 AED ($13,600 USD) with an additional 10,000 AED for each child. However, benefits were only given for a man’s first wife to discourage polygamy.

2004 Marriage Law reforms

In 2004, the government instituted major reforms such as:

– Banning men over 60 from taking additional wives.

– Requiring approval from current wife/wives for polygamous marriage.

– Requiring court permission for polygamy by proving the man’s financial capability to support all wives equally.

2005 Personal Status Law

This law consolidated reforms and codified restrictions, making polygamous marriage allowable only under strict conditions and requiring punitive penalties for violations.

These reforms over 30+ years represented a major shift from no restrictions on polygamy to only allowing polygamy in limited, justified circumstances with court supervision.

Current Laws on Polygamy in UAE

Polygamy remains permissible in the UAE under Federal Law No. 28 of 2005 regarding Personal Status. However, the law has strict requirements for approving polygamous unions to prevent abuse and protect existing wives’ rights. The main provisions are:

– Men must apply for court permission to take an additional wife by submitting evidence of financial capability and lawful justification.

– Men over 60 are prohibited from taking additional wives.

– Court permission involves investigation into the man’s circumstances and his current wife/wives’ consent.

– Current wife/wives can legally object to their husband taking another wife. The court investigates objections.

– Men must treat all wives equally in all aspects – housing, clothing, time spent, etc. Neglecting a wife may lead to divorce.

– Intentionally harming a current wife psychologically or physically to coerce consent may be prosecuted as abuse.

– Penalties for violating the law include fines up to AED 10,000 ($2,700) and jail time.

In addition to Personal Status Law provisions, the government’s Marriage Fund stipulates that Emirati men are only eligible for financial benefits when marrying one wife. Marrying multiple wives forfeits those benefits.

These laws mean an Emirati man may legally take up to four wives, but he faces substantial hurdles and risks in pursuing polygamous marriage without justified cause. Polygamy only occurs in the UAE in a limited, supervised context today compared to the past.

Restrictions and Requirements for Polygamous Marriage

Given the legal and social restrictions now in place, what hurdles do Emirati men face in taking multiple wives?

Proving financial capability

The man must satisfy the court he is financially able to support all wives and children equally. This includes providing:

– Documentation on assets, property, income sources and financial liabilities

– Proposed budget for supporting each wife and children

– Evidence of suitable equal housing for each wife

Justification for polygamy

Reasons like simply wanting more children or desiring another wife are insufficient. Compelling reasons must be given like:

– First wife is infertile and man wants children – confirmed through medical reports

– First wife has chronic illness making marriage duties impossible

– Exceptional circumstances like marrying a widow of a close relative

Consent from current wife/wives

The man must gain consent from existing wives. Objections lead to investigation by the court and likely rejection of polygamous marriage. Coerced consent may be prosecuted as domestic abuse.

Age restriction

Men over 60 are barred from polygamous marriages except in extremely rare, compelling cases.

Court procedures

The man undergoes scrutiny of his circumstances. Character witnesses may be called. Lawyers often help navigate the complex process. Ruling on permission can take several months in contested cases.

Marriage documentation

Marriages must be registered and marriage contracts signed under court supervision. Failing to register polygamous marriages is punishable under law.

Penalties for violations

Fines up to AED 10,000 ($2,700), jail time up to 6 months, and cancellation of polygamous marriage are potential penalties for violating approval procedures or requirements.

These barriers mean most Emirati men today realistically only marry one wife. Polygamy only continues under restricted legal circumstances and oversight.

Ease of Gaining Approval for Polygamous Marriage in UAE

Under the current laws and social norms prevailing in the UAE, how difficult is it for an Emirati man to gain approval to marry multiple wives?

The process is stringent overall, but there are a few factors involved:

Strong justification – Cases with compelling justification like proven infertility of first wife tend to get approved more easily. Weaker reasons like simply desiring another wife face more objections.

First wife’s consent – Gaining willing consent from the first wife is critical. This signals to the court the new marriage will not negatively impact her rights.

Wealth – Men of substantial financial means can more readily satisfy conditions of supporting all wives equally. But average income men struggle gaining permission.

Wife’s background – Taking an immigrant wife requires more justification versus marrying a female relative to keep wealth within extended family.

Court’s mindset – Some courts seem more conservative, emphasizing preserving first marriage versus those actively restricting polygamous intent.

On the whole though, few Emirati men pursue polygamous marriage today due to social taboos and needing to overcome many hurdles. The small percentage of polygamous marriages mostly involve older, wealthy men marrying consenting foreign women in justified circumstances approved by the court. Receiving permission to take a second wife against a first wife’s wishes is extremely rare.

While legally allowed under restricted conditions, polygamy remains socially unaccepted in modern UAE society and practically challenging to achieve for the average Emirati man.


In summary, reforms to marriage laws mean polygamy among Emirati men is legally permissible but strictly regulated compared to the past. The practice was unrestricted in traditional UAE society but reforms in recent decades have instituted conditions and oversight on polygamous unions to protect women’s rights.

Men require verified justification and consent from existing wives to gain court approval for additional marriages. This makes polygamy exceptionally rare in the UAE today. While legally possible under justified, supervised circumstances, the reality is the vast majority of Emirati men have only one wife in line with evolving social values. Polygamy remains permitted but is difficult to legally achieve and socially discouraged in modern Emirati society.

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