What's the secret dating culture like in Saudi Arabia?

What's the secret dating culture like in Saudi Arabia?

While the religious police has stepped back, the internal policing with families and society has not stopped.
Updated 13 Feb, 2020

In Saudi Arabia's rigid past, religious police once swooped down on rose sellers and anyone peddling red paraphernalia around Valentine's Day, but now a more open -- albeit risky -- dating culture is taking root.

Pursuing relationships outside of marriage in the conservative Islamic kingdom once amounted to a death wish, and would-be Romeos resorted to pressing phone numbers up against their car window in hope of making contact with women.

Now a sweeping liberalisation drive -- which has rendered the religious police toothless and allowed gender mixing like never before -- has made it easier for young couples to meet in cafes and restaurants.

Well-heeled millennials also hunt for romantic liaisons via Twitter and Snapchat, and apps such as Swarm -- designed to log places the user visits but often repurposed to look for dates.

"Selling red roses was like selling drugs," one young Saudi filmmaker told AFP, sitting in a music-filled Riyadh cafe with his girlfriend while a courting couple gazed into each other's eyes on the next table.

"Even this was once unthinkable -- a woman sitting next to an unrelated man," said the girlfriend, a media professional.

"Now women are asking men out."

Pre-marital relationships remain a cultural minefield though in a country steeped in Islamic tradition and where matchmaking is typically overseen by family elders, forcing couples to keep unsanctioned romance under wraps.

Covert dating operations illustrate how Saudi Arabia's mainly young population is often compelled to lead dual lives in the pursuit of social liberties that may outstrip the kingdom's capacity for change.

Secrets and lies

Samirah, a 27-year-old finance executive in the Saudi capital, felt a flutter of nerves when her boyfriend's mother stumbled upon a handwritten birthday card and gift she gave him -- and that risked her own family finding out.

In a society where family honour is often tied to female chastity, the revelation would have provoked fury from her family and jeopardised their months-long courtship that began through common friends.

Her boyfriend managed to deflect his mother, but the scare prompted the young couple yearning for more freedom to plan a forbidden rendezvous -- a long weekend in Dubai disguised as a business trip.

"Saudi society is more open, but everyone lies about relationships because people are judgemental," said Samirah, who like other interviewees requested that her real name be withheld.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the millennial heir to the Saudi throne, has loosened social norms in a seismic cultural shift away from hardline Islam, allowing cinemas and parties while reining in clerics opposed to events like Valentine’s Day.

In scenes unimaginable until just two years ago, women have been seen swaying on the shoulders of men at music concerts as the kingdom tears down the walls of sex segregation.

But while the religious police have stepped back, the internal policing within Saudi families and society at large has not stopped, highlighting the limits of a Western-style liberalisation drive in a deeply conservative country.

A Saudi woman in her late 20s told AFP she suspected her "control freak" brother, who works in the military, had deployed official spyware to track whether she was meeting men.

"Young Saudis are caught between the old and new," said Nour, another woman who works in social development.

"Many suffer from the Madonna-whore complex. Just because you are willing to go on a date does not mean you have a loose character."

Full of risks

Saudi women also bridle at pervasive sexism in a society that -- despite undergoing change particularly in urban areas -- some say reduces them to their future role as wives and mothers.

Sex outside of marriage remains a criminal offence in most of the Arab world, and the restrictions also fuel the risk of blackmail.

"It is a big concern if you break up on bad terms," said Samirah.

"Women live in terror: What if he recorded photos and videos of me? What if he tells my father? What if he lands up at home?"

Modern romance is also perilous for men -- getting a hotel room can cause huge anxiety as couples are often expected to prove they are married at check-in.

Nasser, a 25-year-old advertising professional, said last year one of his friends was caught kissing his girlfriend inside a private booth in a Riyadh restaurant.

The restaurant manager threw open the screens and started filming them while shouting: "This is haram!" or un-Islamic.

"Sometimes the only safe place to date is in your car," Nasser told AFP.

"Dating is full of risks."


Sameer Feb 13, 2020 11:08am
Sano nahr wale pul te bula ke, mahi liberal ho gaya!
Taj Feb 13, 2020 11:24am
No different in Pakistan
Babu Feb 13, 2020 01:22pm
Muslims societies need to change fast else young generation will become rebellious.
A Feb 13, 2020 01:29pm
So sad
Muqali Khan Feb 13, 2020 01:51pm
Suppressive laws do not build progressive nation. Primitive laws are no longer applicable in our fast changing world.
Ibrahim S Feb 13, 2020 06:22pm
Only thing that’s constant is change. We need new thinking new approach to abide by our religion and move forward with the world. My best=advice , study and understand our religion instead of delegating it to Mullahs. You will be pleasantly surprised To find out how progress and Advance is our Religion. Our religion gives more freedom to women than we actually know.
Asim Feb 13, 2020 09:01pm
@Babu change for the worst I guess by following western culture!
Ali S Feb 13, 2020 09:26pm
Saudi is a unique case. Other Gulf countries like UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain have wholeheartedly accepted modern social behaviour a long time ago.
Ibrahim S Feb 13, 2020 10:45pm
It’s all about control to hide their own weakness
Syed Saeed Feb 13, 2020 10:56pm
@Babu Baboo, what the heck you know about Muslim Society?
Aftab Azhar Feb 14, 2020 06:54am
Hope the Saudis give up their stifling practices of the 7th century and move on to modern times. Even the saudis will move on and become modern, but their slaves in south asia will continue to remain in the 7th century forever...
ZULFIQAR ALI Feb 15, 2020 03:47pm
Dating is always a risk, In India, Pakistan and in many other Muslim Countries.
Akbar Feb 15, 2020 05:56pm
Their country their customs. Not our concern