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Yousuf, a suave bioengineering student with several years of successful pickups, recommends taking dates out to breakfast, when the "bearded ones," as he calls them, are less likely to be prowling around. Another trick, he says, is to go to a mall or hotel owned by one of the prominent princes who have a tacit agreement with the mutaween that they don't go to his properties. Yousuf's favorite place is the top of Riyadh's ritzy Kingdom Tower, where a sky bridge provides a breathtaking view of the city along with an added perk. "If you are lucky, she pretends to feel dizzy and leans against you," he says, grinning. Sometimes the challenge of dating is part of the fun. Manal, who just married her boyfriend of two years, says a part of her misses the drama. "Our dates are so much more boring now that we are married," she says with a laugh.
Not all dates lead to marriage, of course. "You are always hoping you will find the right one," admits Yousuf, "but mostly, you just want to have fun." Besides, he says, when the time comes, his parents will pick a suitable wife for him. "Families should protect their daughters. If they flirt with boys, they probably aren't the kind of girls you want to marry."
Your Reputation Counts
Today's Saudi Arabia is a world Jane Austen would recognize. Marriages are as much about finding mates as they are about forging family alliances. A young bride is expected to have a spotless reputation; loitering too long with a boy in public can scar her chances at making a good match. It used to be that a girl's virginity was the most important thing, but today, when virginity can be cosmetically resurrected with a quick trip to Beirut or Europe, reputation is paramount. Prospective parents-in-law can demand to scrutinize a girl's mobile-phone records to ensure she hasn't had a prior relationship. For that reason, some more-affluent Saudis, with their parents' permission, choose to date outside the country. They flock to Beirut, Paris or London, where they can meet other eligible Saudis without fear of repercussions back home.
Sex, though rare, does happen. So taboo is sex outside marriage that few singles have access to contraception. If a girl gets pregnant, her family will often force a marriage. Another drawback to clandestine dating, says one Saudi psychologist, is that young women are not taught that they have the right to say no. "So she falls into rape very easily. And then she falls into the spiral of 'I lost my virginity. What am I going to do, and who will marry me?' The psychological turmoil is horrendous."
The strict segregation of genders often leads to same-sex experimentation, according to one university student. Like porn, it is for some a religiously acceptable alternative to the greater sin of fornication, particularly if it happens between young women. "The most precious thing is a girl's virginity," says al-Oweardi. "If she has relationships with her female friends, that is O.K. it is only temporary."
For their part, many young Saudi men postpone marriage until they have a decent job. With an 11% official unemployment rate, however, that's becoming more difficult. In any event, says Ahmad al-Shugairi, a Saudi televangelist who focuses on youth issues, such thinking is out of sync with biology and a culture that emphasizes chastity. The No. 1 preoccupation with young men everywhere is sex, he says. But unlike in the U.S., where it's socially O.K. to date, Saudi "society and religion [are] saying you cannot release that desire unless you are married, which these days can be as late as 30. So what are we expecting to happen from the age of 14 to 30? It's a bomb waiting to explode, and all that the clerics can tell them is that they need to fast." He proposes that the age of marriage be lowered to better mesh with biology.
Dating, even if it goes no further than a peck on the cheek at the end of the day, serves as a pressure valve, says Salman, my would-be beau in the Chrysler. When he's waiting for his phone to ring after a night out numbering, he's not thinking about sex so much as that dopamine hit that presages potential love. If there were other, more natural ways of meeting girls, he and his friends would be less likely to engage in such aggressive behavior. He wistfully talks about Jidda, where folks go to loosen their headscarves a little. "In Jidda, you can meet girls at the café or at the beach," he says. "It's so much more normal."
Of course, by Saudi standards, Jidda is anything but normal. There, at the numerous private beach colonies lining the coast, young men and women from Saudi Arabia's "velvet class" the upwardly mobile intelligentsia play beach volleyball and share a hubble-bubble as the sun goes down. But as one of the young volleyball players points out, just because men and women have a little more freedom to meet in Jidda, it doesn't mean love is any closer to hand. "At my age, I am starting to worry about getting married," says 28-year-old Roua, who runs her own promotions company. "But I have to marry someone I love, and that's not easy to find." That's true in Saudi Arabia, and everywhere else.