How Men in Saudi Arabia Flirt Without Getting Thrown in Jail

Jan 15, 2014 at 11:13 AM ET

Social authorities in Saudi Arabia can arrest anyone who talks to a person of the opposite sex who isn’t a family member. So how do men flirt with women in one of the world’s most conservative countries? Men have some pretty ingenious (and often illegal) solutions, I learned in my recent survey of 40 Saudi men.

A man writes his number on a small piece of paper in the hopes that he will walk by a woman in a shopping mall or a park. He winks at her and throws the piece of paper on the floor, hoping the girl collects it when no one is watching.

A quicker approach is the “drive-by method,” where the man shouts a compliment out his car window and then throw his digits onto the street before he peels away.

Several of the men I surveyed reported that they had simply called random numbers, hoping to reach a woman. When a woman shows some interest, the man begs her not to hang up until they agree to speak again. None of the men indicated that this had led to anything more than a telephone conversation.

One survey participant left his car in a lot with a “for sale” sign on the window and his phone number attached. The car was not for sale: He just hoped that a single woman would call and he could put his flirtation skills to the test. (A note about my survey methodology: I designed a survey through Google and asked my contacts to forward it to their contacts and ask them to forward it to their contacts. Many contacts of mine not only refused to forward such an “immoral” survey but also blamed me for doing such research.)

The strict separation of the sexes has compelled Saudi men to use any means available to flirt with women in those rare instances where men and women are intermingled. Some participants in my survey mentioned that they had attempted to seduce women in such places as hospital wards and shopping malls. Local authorities have recently been expanding parks and “designated walking areas.” Not surprisingly, these have become a haven for many men hoping to speak to women.

As women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, some men told me they have taken jobs as private drivers who can be employed temporarily to drive women to where they want to go. Some of these drivers reported that they had flirted with their female customers and eventually got their phone numbers.

Other, more tech-savvy men have turned to the Internet to flirt. One man told me that “although shopping malls used to be the most popular places for flirtation, many people have moved to social networks.” Participants in my survey reported using Tango or WeChat, which allows them to find and communicate with women users who live nearby or might be sitting in a public space in the area.

Some men have replaced their social media usernames with their phone numbers. This approach hinges on women being willing to call the random numbers that post flirtatious messages on Twitter or Facebook or Whatsapp. This also applies on Keek, YouTube, Bluetooth or Personal Hotspot. As in the West, chat rooms and web-based forums are popular locales for lonely hearts.

Only 14 of the 40 men I surveyed indicated that a woman had been willing to hand over her phone number to them. “One collects women’s numbers in Saudi Arabia not necessarily because of sexual desire but just because of boredom and for fun. Boredom makes one do things outside the human boundary.”

So said one of my survey participants. Others said it’s exhilarating to subvert traditional norms. How Saudi women perceive these attempts at flirtation remains an ongoing area of my research.

Dr. Abdul Al Lily is an Oxford graduate and a Saudi professor.