For the Islamic Instagram Generation, Dating Takes Off

Wedding dress
Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

In another age, the engagement between Mubarak al-Balooshi and his cousin would have been arranged by their family, with little input on the decision from him or her. Instead, the 23-year-old Omani met his fiancée on Instagram, the photo-sharing application.

"I was liking her photos, then it turned out she was from my family," al-Balooshi says. As he tells his story, he is sitting with friends on a seaside road in Muscat nicknamed Sharia Al Hub – Arabic for Love Street. The café-lined promenade is a popular place for dates, increasingly common in Oman as the Persian Gulf sultanate adjusts to four decades of oil-fuelled development. While the sun sets over the Indian ocean, young men call out honeyed words to female passers-by.

But in this traditional Islamic society, where mixing between genders is limited, social media offered one of the only discreet ways for al-Balooshi to woo a girl.

"I got to know the charisma of her personality," he says of his cousin, whom he did not know personally because she lives in the United Arab Emirates. Two months ago, he proposed. Their families welcomed their plans.

Marrying for love was rare just 20 years ago in Oman, a peaceful nation of four million that borders Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Arranged matches were for a long time the norm, with minimal contact between a couple before their wedding. But customs are evolving rapidly. Oil wealth, globalisation and widespread higher education have transformed the country since Sultan Qaboos bin Said seized power from his father in 1970 and opened Oman to the world.

"It's a new generation," says Rahma al-Mahrooqi, director of the humanities research centre at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. "People are becoming more open-minded," says Ammar Ali, 26, an Omani who met his wife Sarah (half-Omani, half-Scottish) through a mutual friend.

In a survey of 921 Omanis aged 18 to 60, al-Mahrooqi's research centre found that 83% were against arranged marriage. More than a love marriage, young Omanis want a "compatible marriage," al-Mahrooqi says. "Somebody with, for example, the same kind of education and background, instead of the same kind of family." As a result, many are looking for partners at university, at work or on social media.

Similar changes are happening in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, says Jane Bristol-Rhys, associate professor of anthropology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Exposure to other cultures – whether through television, the internet, or direct contact with foreigners – has influenced ideas about what a good marriage should look like. "They're not living in a vacuum here, and they know there are other choices," Bristol-Rhys says.

An arranged marriage was unthinkable for Waleed Abdullah, a 28-year-old Omani. "Because I had relationships before, it's impossible I could be convinced easily by any girl," he says. "I need to know the girl."

Abdullah married a woman he met at university. She follows a different sect of Islam, but after many months of discussion, he convinced his family that she was the right choice.

In some segments of Omani society, dating and marrying for love has become ordinary.Samar al-Mawali, 23, did not tell her parents about her relationship with her high-school sweetheart at first, but when they found out anyway, they supported her. The couple married in December after eight years together. Persuading her family was simple, she says. "They may be conservative in terms of religion and praying five times a day and fasting . . . but they're not conservative in the sense that they don't allow us to mix with boys," she says.

But in other segments of Omani society, dating is still completely taboo. While the country lacks the religious police of Saudi Arabia, vigilant relatives can play a similar role. Amira, 23, who has dated in secret for years, has always been careful. "Imagine if somebody sees me, my cousin or my brother, by chance?" she says. "So it's always in places a bit closed-off, places like the seaside at night, or a park, places far from people close to us." She asked Newsweek not to publish her last name, so that her family does not find out.

Amira met her first boyfriend in an online chat room when she was 18. Charmed by his words, she talked to him for two years before they met in person. "It was the first date in my life, and I was shaking," she remembers. "It was the first time I sat with a man." Over two more years, they fell deeply in love, picking names for their future children. Then he told her his family would never approve, cut off contact and married his cousin.

Amira was hurt, but she recovered. A year after the break-up, he asked her to be his second wife; men are permitted to marry up to four women in Islam. She refused. "After this love, I said, 'Enough, what's the point of love? And guys are idiots,'" she said. "I'll try a traditional marriage." Her family arranged three matches, none of them right. Now she is dating a man she met at work. With dating, of course, come broken hearts.

Mohammed al-Hinai, 29, is happily married, but wistfully remembers his first love. Their families were too different, he says. Opposition from relatives sunk the relationship. "Sometimes the culture kills us here," he says.

Twenty-six-year-old Dana – not her real name – hopes to avoid a similar fate. After she met her boyfriend on Facebook four years ago, they schemed to win over her father, who has no idea she dates. Her boyfriend prayed at the mosque near her house and trained at the gym her brother attended, hoping to run into her family members. Dana found a job at the office where her boyfriend worked, giving them a safe explanation for how they met.

But when he proposed, three times, her father demurred. He never informed Dana she had an offer, rejecting the proposal because the boyfriend has two daughters from a previous marriage and is separated but not divorced. This does not matter to Dana; she loves him. But she cannot tell her father, she says. "For us, it's a shame for the girl to say to her father, 'I want this one or that one,'" she says. "Unless the father has reached a level of open-mindedness that . . . " she laughs, as if the thought were absurd.

Sitting on a lawn chair on Love Street, al-Hinai says he has moved on from his disappointment. After refusing a marriage his father had arranged, he chose a wife for himself, a woman from his village. His eyes are bright as he describes the way their two-year-old son calls out "Baba" each morning. "It's impossible to get everything, impossible," he says. "The most beautiful thing in life is hope. And a message to every lover, every madman: don't say that I loved and it didn't happen, so enough, end of life."

When love fails, look around, he says. "If one door is closed, 99 will open."