Long forbidden, dating has arrived in the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom with some Saudis meeting and marrying without the help of relatives. Well-heeled millennials meet via Tinder, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram. The pair finally met in person in Egypt, where gender mixing is more accepted than in Saudi Arabia, long dominated by a puritanical form of Islam that has been challenged recently by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s push toward a more moderate interpretation of the religion. Because sex and romantic love remain highly controversial subjects in the kingdom, interviewees spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity, and pseudonyms have been used. While there have been noticeable social changes recently, men and women who are not closely related still traditionally don’t mix, and some avoid even looking at an unrelated person of the opposite sex. Girls and boys are educated separately, and workplaces that employ women are nominally segregated.
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There is no denying the public’s fascination with ‘strange’ locations or lifestyles, so different and exaggerated from their own. Therefore, it only makes sense that the world is equally fascinated about what goes on behind the closed doors of Saudi Arabia, a nation too private for the information-hungry 21st century. Recent developments in the Kingdom, such as the ‘honesty app’ Sarahah that took over the internet like wildfire, the government’s decision to lift restrictions on WhatsApp, Prince Salman’s plans to build beach resorts in the country where women can wear bikinis, and the recent video of a Saudi girl strolling in the desert in a skirt and cropped top, have intrigued the world even more.
Having lived in Saudi Arabia for most of my life, I have become somewhat of an informal traveling speaker on this Middle Eastern desert. Females and Saudi Arabia are two things that do not seem to go together very well. Of course, it is not a sanctuary here for women — the driving ban, amongst other things, is very real.
Just last weekend, we had lunch with a male friend whom we have known for nearly 2 decades. He has been going into one relationship to the next and had just broke up with a woman he has been dating for a year or two. When asked why he split up with his last girlfriend, he said that she is too opinionated for a woman. That sets me thinking about why men seem to dislike highly independent woman with a mind of her own. Is it because such women are harder to control? Or is it that men are naturally inclined towards women who are more submissive?
When I probed further, he said that her strong opinions make her very stubborn at times which cause the relationship to be very argumentative. In short, he likes his woman to be more accommodating and less outspoken. He is willing to listen but she must also know when to stop talking and accept his point of view. Perhaps not many men have the confidence to face up to an opinionated, outspoken and independent woman.
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The easing of stringent regulations governing social interactions comes after Riyadh launched its first tourist visa scheme, as part of efforts to open up the country to foreign visitors and diversify its oil-reliant economy. Women will be allowed to rent hotel rooms with proof of identityor if they have a male guardian present who does have proof of identity. For the launch of its new visa, the country was highlighting its five Unesco World Heritage sites, contemporary art sites and natural sites including the Red Sea, desert and mountains.
The one-year, multiple-entry visa scheme allows for stays of up to 90 days at a time and marks the first time the country is allowing foreigners to visit solely for the purpose of tourism.
In conservative Saudi Arabia, this was a nail-biting operation. The two had started seeing each other after meeting on a video-dating app.
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