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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Phone technology aids UAE dating
By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Dubai

Ahmed Bin Desmal, UAE national who uses Bluetooth
Bluetooth user Ahmed says he is into poems
As part of a series on young people in the Middle East, the BBC News website discovers how technology is aiding the secret liaisons of young men and women in the conservative culture of the United Arab Emirates.

It happens in malls, cinemas and cafes - in Dubai's notorious traffic jams, and now by mobile phone.

Many of the city's black-shrouded UAE girls say they cannot check out the latest fashions in Zara or sip a smoothie in a cafe without being bombarded with the phone numbers of hopeful admirers.

UAE population has increased roughly eightfold since 1975
Less than a quarter of the population are UAE nationals
An influx of workers from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the US make up the rest of the population
In terms of GDP per capita, the UAE is among the world's 25 richest countries
Among UAE nationals - as the minority of the UAE's residents that are not expatriates are called - it is generally considered impolite for a man to speak to a woman he is neither married nor related to in public.

Traditionally, a young man's first amorous approach to a woman is supposed to be a marriage proposal made by his parents to her parents.

But the cards, scraps of paper and mobile phone messages that pass from male to female are testament to the double existence of some young UAE nationals as they take their love lives into their own hands.

Wireless advances

One technology is proving particularly useful.

Our governments are all corrupt and, though there is some change for the better, nothing is really improving
Rasha, Bahrain

Bluetooth is a feature built into some mobile phones which enables the user to transfer data to another wireless device nearby.

But crucially, it also enables one person to contact another within a 10 metre radius without knowing their phone number.

Ahmed Bin Desmal's friends joke that he is a "Bluetooth king". The 20-year-old says he has used the technology to send notes to girls he sees in public places.

"In our country it's very rude to go up and talk to them," he says. "I sent some notes, they liked them - they took my number and they called me. I say nice things - I'm into poems."

While to many like Ahmed, Bluetooth is just a way to start a conversation, for some it can go much further.

Married couple in shopping mall in Dubai
Usually only married or engaged UAE couples go out in public
Mohammed, 24, does not know how many girlfriends he has had. He prefers expat girls because he can take them to the beach or to parties, but finds Bluetooth useful when pursuing locals.

"In some areas you can't talk to a girl except through Bluetooth."

His flirtations by phone and other means sometimes end in sex. Even with national girls, it is possible to keep it secret: "Hotels, flats, houses, anything - there's always a way," he says.

But he wants to marry a virgin eventually: "The girls I have sex with are different from the girls I would marry - these girls want to play around," he says.

Choosing a wife

But not all are like this - far from it. At Dubai Men's College I meet several bright, studious young men.

Maryam Abdullah Bin Bilaila, 19, student at Zayed University
I don't think I'd have a love marriage - family marriage is a bit more risk-free
Maryam Abdullah Bin Bilaila, 19
Most want to wait until they are established in careers and in their late twenties before marrying. Few have had friendships that would approach the Western definition of a girlfriend.

"If I tell you I don't think about it, it's a lie. Every day I meet a lot of women, but in the end if you can control yourself that's something good," says Salim Alakraf, 25.

For them the issue is how much they will be involved in choosing their wife.

"Nowadays people are really open-minded, although we still follow our culture. If I'm working with a girl and I think she is suitable for me, I can ask my family to go and ask her family about her to see if she is suitable," says Saeed Suwaidi, 27, the leader of the student council.

'Perfect talk'

Among national girls, it is virtually impossible for a young woman to admit to clandestine meetings with boys, although from the tales young men tell, it is clear that these take place.

Mobile phone using Bluetooth - shows message "searching for devices"
Bluetooth can be used to locate and contact nearby devices
Even being friends with such a girl can damage a reputation, a word that comes up often.

And while some would like to meet their future husband "by coincidence" or through work, there is still caution about "love marriages".

"I don't think I'd have a love marriage. It's not that I don't want one, but our contact with guys is not that good, and a guy talks his perfect talk when he sees a girl so it could be a misjudgement. Family marriage is a bit more risk-free," says accounting student Maryam Abdullah Bin Bilaila, 19.

Instant messaging

But other young people are treading a cautious, secretive path towards love marriages, aided by technology.

Ahmed, 26, is in love with his girlfriend of five years, but neither of their families know.

Dubai traffic jam
Dubai's traffic jams provide opportunities to exchange numbers
They talk often by mobile phone, but their meetings are limited to the 10 minutes between her leaving work and arriving home.

"Yes, I think I will marry her. We've had a long relationship, for five years. She knows all my secrets, I know her secrets," he says.

And Saud, 22, met the girl he describes as his girlfriend two years ago on the internet, through instant messaging software.

Although they talk on the phone, he has seen her only five or six times, by following her from a distance as she shops with her family in a mall. He says she's beautiful.

But, while the couple are finding ways around their society's cultural mores, for them, as for many young people, the consequences of being caught remain all too real.

"We are afraid someone from her family will see and there could be big problems which would mean we couldn't ever marry," says Saud.

Some names have been changed to protect the interviewees' identities.

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