Mobile phones change dating habits as Saudis search for new identity


INSIDE THE DESERT KINGDOM:JAWAHER PULLS out the mobile phone and presses play. The grainy video clip shows her behind the wheel of an SUV with male and female friends sitting in the back. They laugh and cheer as Jawaher scans the deserted streets and drives on.

“My dad taught me how to drive,” says Jawaher, a graphic design student from the Red Sea city of Jeddah. “A lot of people wave when they see me drive past. One man videotaped me from his car. Another time a woman who was completely veiled gave me the thumbs up.”

Jawaher’s friend Badr explains how his sisters sometimes don the white robe and headdress worn by Saudi men so they can circumvent the ban on women driving without drawing the attention of the religious police known as muttawa.

He tells another story of a female friend who once rode a bicycle to a restaurant. “Everyone was saying how brave she was.” Jawaher and Badr are sitting in a cafe in Jeddah with three other friends – two men and one woman. All are in their early 20s. They occupy a table in the “family section” of the cafe – all restaurants and cafes in Saudi Arabia have separate, partitioned areas for “families”, ie male and female relatives, and single men – but all are unrelated.

The sight of young men and women at ease with each other in public, laughing and arguing together, would be unthinkable in Riyadh or other parts of the country’s conservative heartland, but here in cosmopolitan Jeddah, a city considered liberal by Saudi standards, it is more common than you might expect.

Jawaher wears her headscarf loose, and both she and her friend Dania leave their faces uncovered. The two women wear sheer black chiffon abayas lined with boldly patterned silk. The men wear traditional dress or jeans and T-shirts.

Jawaher and her friends belong to what will be a defining generation for Saudi Arabia. Some 75 per cent of the country’s population is under 30 and 60 per cent is under 21, making Saudi Arabia one of the youngest nations in the world.

As Saudi analyst Mai Yamani observed in her book Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia, “Their numbers alone make them the crucial political constituency.”

It is a generation that finds itself pulled between a world experienced through the internet, satellite TV and mobile communications, and real life in what remains a deeply traditional and conservative society.

Talk to young Saudis and it becomes clear that exposure to what lies beyond their country’s borders does not always result in a thirst for a more Western lifestyle. While some chafe under Saudi Arabia’s strict codes of behaviour, many others will not even entertain the thought of alternatives.

There are those who seek refuge in faith and tradition, and others who attempt to explore where faith ends and tradition begins in an effort to strike their own balance with modernity.

The potential for tension is very real, and some young Saudis wonder how attuned the country’s greying establishment is to this new generation and its needs.

“You have a very young population and leaders who are in their 70s and 80s. Can these leaders understand the young generation, their hopes, dreams and aspirations?” asks Ahmed Al-Omran (24), a pharmacy student who runs a popular blog called Saudi Jeans.

“I was hoping the country would change faster [after King Abdullah came to the throne in 2005] but four years later the change has been very slow, leaving me and a lot of young Saudis very frustrated. There are steps forward but at the same time there are steps back.”

Many of his peers are grappling with what it means to be Saudi. The involvement of 15 Saudis in the 9/11 attacks, and a number of subsequent terrorist strikes in Saudi Arabia itself, proved a turning point. “These attacks were carried out by Saudis who said they were acting in the name of Islam. It prompted a new search for identity,” says Ahmed.

“One of my friends calls it SICS – Saudi Identity Crisis Syndrome. We don’t know who we are, what we want or what direction the country is going in. It’s difficult to constitute a Saudi identity that takes in all tribal, ethnic, religious and regional identities.”

Back at the cafe in Jeddah, Jawaher and her friends discuss politics and the place of religion in Saudi society. “When it comes to religion here, there is only one voice – not just Islam, but one particular interpretation of Islam,” complains Badr, who recalls with distaste some of what he was taught in school about other faiths.

“My parents told me that these are just things you have to write in the exams, that’s all.”

Ali, a pharmacy student, is interested in the rationalist strain of Islamic thought espoused by a movement known as the Mutazalites in the ninth century. He orders books on the subject from Amazon, and admits such views are controversial in a country which cleaves to an austere and highly literal interpretation of Islam.

Dania shows me copies of Saudi Arabia’s first design magazine. One cover features a young Saudi with her hands upturned in prayer; the next a young woman in black abaya and designer sunglasses yawning in a seen-it-all fashion. Another cover shows two twentysomething Saudi men, one, wearing T-shirt, jeans and Converse trainers, drinks a glass of mint tea; the other, dressed in traditional robe and sandals, holds a takeaway coffee.

Mohammed, who works in marketing, believes it will take time for real change to be felt on the ground in Saudi Arabia. He says he would like Saudi Arabia to follow the Danish example of constitutional monarchy and allow for greater freedom of expression and participation in decision making. Ali looks to the British model.

In Riyadh, Ibrahim, a recently married student, talks about how mobile phone technology is changing the way Saudi youth meet – and even date. Calls and texting – and more recently, Bluetooth – provide young men and women with new ways of discreetly overcoming Saudi Arabia’s policy of strict segregation between the sexes.

There are many stories of couples secretly dating and falling in love, but being unable to tell their parents because they could never explain how they knew each other in the first place.

“Friends of mine talk to girls without their parents knowing,” says Ibrahim who admits to not being entirely comfortable with the idea. “I wouldn’t say these are 100 per cent good changes. Tradition is losing the battle here

. . . We are Muslims and we have to stay with our religion.”