Saudi Youth Use Cellphone Savvy To Outwit the Sentries of Romance

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 6, 2006

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Three a.m., two luxury cars side by side on an empty street, slicing through the sticky seaside air at 100 miles per hour.

The girl in the gold Lexus waved at Husam Thobaity. She was in the back seat, covered by a black veil that hid everything but her eyes.

"She had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen," Thobaity recalled. "So I gave her my number by Bluetooth."

Thobaity, 23, pushed a button on his cellphone and activated Bluetooth, a short-range wireless function that is standard on most new cellphones. Within seconds, the girl's Bluetooth screen name popped up on his cell's glowing display. He laughed: She called herself "Spoiled," which matched the flashy Daddy's Girl car. Excited, flustered, using his left hand to steer, he clicked on her name and sent her a text message with his phone number.

The big Lexus roared off down another road.

It would be a week before Thobaity heard from the girl with those eyes, the woman he loves.

Cellphone technology is changing the way young people meet and date in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most insular, conservative and religiously strict societies in the world. Calls and texting -- and more recently, Bluetooth -- are breaking down age-old barriers and giving young men and women discreet new ways around the sentries of romance.

Saudi Arabia's zealous religious police can arrest and jail anyone who violates the rules of local culture, a mixture of tradition and the country's ultra-strict Wahhabi Islam that forbids most social contact between men and women who are not related.

Cinemas are banned -- men and women sitting in the same dark place is considered too likely to arouse mischievous hormones. Restaurants and coffeehouses have separate, partitioned areas for "families" -- male and female relatives -- and single men. Security guards stand at the entrances to shopping malls to bar men who are not accompanied by a wife, sister or mother. University classes are segregated by sex. Unrelated men and women riding in the same car (women are not allowed to drive) can be jailed by the religious police, a government agency known formally as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Before Bluetooth arrived, people here say, a man seeking to circumvent all that might write his phone number on something heavy enough to be thrown -- usually a cassette tape -- and toss it through a woman's car window. He might wait outside a shop or by an ATM and furtively pass a woman a scrap of paper with his number or drop it on the floor to be picked up. He might keep a laminated sign in his car with his number printed on it to hold up to women in other cars.

Cellphones have changed such behavior in a hurry. In the past five years, the number of cellphone users in this country of 27 million people has increased from 1.7 million to 14.5 million, according to industry analysts. Cellphones permit young people to talk discreetly without a parent listening. Bluetooth, which allows high-speed transfer of photos, videos and text messages to others within a range of about 15 yards, enables them to communicate without even knowing each other's phone numbers.

The Saudi government has watched the rise of cell technology with alarm. It banned cellphones equipped with cameras in 2004, decrying them as an assault on women's modesty and privacy after photos of women without their veils, snapped with cellphone cameras, were circulated on the Internet. But officials quickly relented after they realized that nearly all cellphones sold here have cameras.

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