Saudis find love on social media

By Hugh Naylor

Saudi women alone in public places may actually be on rendezvous arranged on social media. Photo / AP
Saudi women alone in public places may actually be on rendezvous arranged on social media. Photo / AP

Saudi Arabia goes to notorious lengths to prevent unsanctioned romance. So citizens of the conservative kingdom are increasingly turning to social media networks to pursue relationships and plan forbidden rendezvous.

In a country with strict gender-segregation rules, unmarried men and women who mingle can face harassment or worse from religious police. While Saudis have long cautiously challenged their society's rigid traditions by using the internet to flirt and chat, many say social media networks give them a relatively safe place to pursue flings and even find potential spouses.

"All my friends are talking to boys on social media," said a 23-year-old woman who described meeting a former boyfriend through Facebook.

Their relationship evolved into secret excursions in his vehicle and steamy encounters, she said.

Even though her mother has tried to introduce her to men in more traditional ways, she prefers courtship on social media.

It's more intimate, she said. "I don't want to be pushed into a relationship with a stranger," she said.

Constrained by the state's adherence to a particularly austere form of Sunni Islam, Saudis have long used stealthy tactics in pursuit of love and lust.

Before the internet, men would hang for-sale signs displaying their telephone numbers on their vehicles with the actual intention of propositioning female callers.

More recently, Saudis used wireless Bluetooth technology to connect with people in their immediate vicinity.

But social media networks offer far more opportunities and greater anonymity. Smartphones seem ubiquitous among almost all age groups and income levels. Surveys have shown Saudi Arabia, a nation of 22 million, has one of the world's highest rates of Twitter and YouTube users.

Abdulrahman al-Shuqir, a sociologist at the Ministry of Higher Education who writes about the history of sexual relations in Saudi Arabia, said private communication channels available on social media networks help foster meaningful relationships. That in turn has led to an apparent rise in physical encounters between unmarried people, he said.

If caught engaging in unsanctioned romance, people - especially women - face social stigma and harsh punishment from families. They must also contend with religious police, who monitor malls, coffeehouses and online forums.

Saudis largely avoid Tinder and other formal dating apps popular in the West, preferring instead less conspicuous wooing techniques.

Find someone interesting on Instagram? That's when a Saudi might try to grab that person's attention by liking photographs and then sparking private conversation in WhatsApp, an online-texting app.

Hassnaa al-Kenyeer, a writer on women's issues who lives in Riyadh, said the empowerment of women is responsible for the popularity of online dating and the apparent rise in physical encounters that can result.

- Washington Post, Bloomberg

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