In ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are strictly segregated, traditional match-makers face tough competition from blossoming marriage services on online social networks.

More than 200 Twitter sites and dozens of other forums on the Internet offer services for Saudi men and women seeking spouses, angering match-makers like Um Sami who sees it as “organised prostitution.”

“Social networks undermine our work and everything they offer is virtual: they use nicknames and they are not reliable,” said Um Sami, an elderly woman and well-established match-maker from the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

For her, many of these websites are “fraudulent” and some are even an organised form of prostitution.

“Marriage via online platforms is one hundred percent doomed to failure,” she said, stressing that only her traditional match-making method can lead to a successful marriage.

For match-makers like Um Sami the business has flourished by word of mouth.

Families ready to marry off their offsprings contact her with details about their children and provide pictures which she carries around with her on rounds to match candidates.

But her job is not a simple one because, as she says, there are many different types of weddings that can be contracted in Saudi Arabia, from the traditional unions to unconventional ones by Western standards such as the “misyar” marriage.

A misyar — or “visitor’s” marriage — is one in which couples live separately but can meet up when they want, usually for sexual encounters.

It is allowed in Sunni-powerhouse Saudi Arabia but couples who choose to go that way will keep it a family secret shared only with the match-maker.

In a traditional union sealed with the help of Um Sami, the bride and groom each pay the match-maker around 2,000 riyals (530 dollars).

But the fee for a misyar wedding is much higher and usually starts around 5,000 riyals (1,300 dollars) — with the man alone having to foot the bill while his spouse continues to live in her own home.

Misyar is often the marriage of choice for polygamous men as well as divorcees and widows in Saudi Arabia, where extra-marital relations are strictly banned and punishable under rigid Islamic laws.

(This article was published on February 14, 2013)
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