How Tinder-inspired dating apps are changing matchmaking in the Middle East

How Tinder-inspired dating apps are changing matchmaking in the Middle East
With online dating growing in popularity, entrepreneurs in the Middle East are taking advantage by creating a range of digital apps.
5 min read
22 July, 2020
Online dating is growing in popularity. [Getty]

Since Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter facilitated the spread of the Arab Spring through Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen almost a decade ago, social media has become a fixture in the Middle East. 

A parallel development in the region has received little attention, though: the rise of online dating, a new way for youth to meet in countries where globalisation has fast taken root.

In light of Internet dating's growing popularity, entrepreneurs throughout the Middle East and North Africa are looking to take advantage of Tinder's regional popularity by inventing local alternatives.

Lebanon, a well-known hub for the Middle East's boundary-pushing businesses, hosts the mobile application making the most aggressive push to capture Tinder's market share. Matchmallows' spartan website belies the online dating service's ingenuity.

By asking new users twenty-seven questions about their lifestyle and personality, the mobile app helps them build a profile based on more than the superficial qualities that image-focused online dating services often highlight. 

Matchmallows' innovative approach to Internet dating earned the technology company a number of plaudits in the Western world. Websites such as BustleComplex, and The Daily Dot praised the Beirut-based mobile app's novelty, noting - as Matchmallows seemed eager to emphasise in its own campaign of public relations - that the online dating service could evolve into the Middle East's answer to Tinder.

Even Middle Eastern countries resistant to Western-style romance have made room for Internet dating, suggesting a promising future for mobile apps

A Matchmallows co-founder, Andy Tarabay, conveyed this vision with a healthy dose of understatement: "Here in the Middle East, it's not like in the States."

A number of potential Matchmallows competitors hope to capitalise on this mentality. Salaam Swipe caters to a Muslim target audience, allowing users to identify as conservative, moderate or liberal, and Shia, Sunni or non-denominational on their profiles as they search for love as well as marriage. LoveHabibi, a website whose homepage showcases users in Egypt, Iran, Morocco, and Somalia, calls itself "the Web's favorite place for Middle Eastern dating worldwide." 

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Every business cycle seems to bring another round of mobile apps dedicated to Internet dating in the Middle East. Many of these online dating services market themselves to Arabs and Muslims in particular.

Several offer user interfaces in Modern Standard Arabic, Dardashti foremost among them, though the number of Middle Easterners who want to flirt in the stilted language of Islamic texts and parliamentary speeches remains a mystery. Another mobile app, Wango, has replicated Bumble's model by accounting for the unique challenges faced by women in online dating.

Internet dating has obvious appeal in the Middle East and North Africa. Online dating services hidden away on a mobile app or website afford youth a level of discretion rarely found when searching for love in daily life, providing young women in particular with far more autonomy and privacy.

This aspect of online dating also benefits members of the LGBTQ community, whose existence many countries in the region have all but banned in a concerning nod to religious law and conservative social norms. Even Middle Eastern countries resistant to Western-style romance have made room for Internet dating, suggesting a promising future for mobile apps in this line of business. 

As online dating services become more widespread across the Middle East, they will likely encounter a variety of cultural and political obstacles

Tinder managed to export online matchmaking to Saudi Arabia as youth in the kingdom use the mobile app to plan dates as well as more casual encounters amid the country's recent cultural liberalisation.

Across the world, the spread of the coronavirus has added a new impetus to the rise of Internet dating. The longer governments close bars, clubs, restaurants, and other venues popular with new couples, the more incentive youth in the Middle East will have to turn to online dating. Spikes in cases in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and many of their neighbours suggest that social distancing could be turning into a way of life, a boon to mobile apps looking to exploit this development.

As online dating services become more widespread across the Middle East and North Africa, they will likely encounter a variety of cultural and political obstacles.

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Premarital sexual relationships and casual dating remain taboo, limiting how far some relationships can go. Given Tinder's reputation as a facilitator of hookup culture, the mobile app's competitors in the Middle East may face resistance from traditionalists. 

Dating in the Middle East often finds itself on the losing side of the region's battle against social conservatism. One disturbing headline from earlier this year illustrated the potential difficulties of couples in the Middle East and North Africa: the father of a 14-year-old Iranian girl Romina Ashrafi killed her for trying to run away with her 29-year-old boyfriend.

The LGBTQ community in the Middle East also deals with its own risks. This year, homophobes in Egypt and Morocco launched campaigns to out users of the gay online dating service Grindr. The mobile app already warned its users about Egypt's police using Grindr to arrest them in 2014.

The Middle East offers entrepreneurs intent on bringing online dating to the region a promising market. Nonetheless, the makers and users of these ambitious mobile apps will have to take into account the context of the culture in which they are operating. Online dating in the Middle East and North Africa presents more significant difficulties than many realise.

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired