Online Dating in Conservative Cultures: Breaking the Taboo in the Middle East

It may be surprising, but many dating apps and websites operate in the Middle East.

online-dating-MENA-web-coverTinder, Badoo, Okcupid, Meetic, Happn… You’ve heard about them and you’ve probably used them a couple of times or more.

The promise of finding someone a few clicks away in an age where everyone is connected is too good to pass on.

Online dating has been growing exponentially over the past few years. The Industry generates around $4 Billion yearly growing at a steady 5% annual pace. However, did you know that the origin of ‘online dating’ predates the internet era?

Online dating is much older than you would think

The origin of online dating started in 1959 when two Stanford University students used a questionnaire and an IBM terminal to match 49 men and women.

The experiment relied on matching couples according to their responses. This new use of nascent computing powers led to several dating-related initiatives being launched for matchmaking including “Operation Match”, which led to millions filling a $3 questionnaire in the 1960s.

The 1980s also experienced another step forward to what modern dating is; innovations such as the Minitel in France where pink chat rooms were set up (Messageries Rose); while at the same time in the US, bulletin boards for dating were set up. Matchmaker Electronic Pen-Pal Network, the system was a precursor to the internet with users exchanging data through terminals with a mechanism similar to mail or instant messaging.

In 1995 with the advent of the World Wide Web, was launched riding on the promise of online classified ads; the first iteration was a failure, and the domain name was acquired by media conglomerate IAC spinning off into the Group which owns several dating services such as Okcupid,, Meetic, Twoo and Tinder.

The general audience’s mainstream introduction to online dating comes probably from the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie “You’ve Got Mail”; the movie helped break the taboos and the negative connotation of dating through new technologies.

The first real online dating website – e-harmony, launched in 2000, was designed to be a matchmaking service with a focus on building long-term relationships and used a set of 450 questions to be filled (since then reduced to 150).

The Rise of Mobile Dating

Online dating has grown with the rise of technology. Indeed, what was a lengthy process using clunky e-mails changed gradually using modern technology.

Video conferencing, fast mobile connections and the convergence towards the app economy have led to an exponential increase in dating websites and apps across the world.

Two trends have emerged: traditional dating sites with a generalist and wide population and niche dating sites geared towards more atypical and specific audiences. Here are some of the more interesting picks:

Although there is no shortage of options when it comes to online dating the market is mainly dominated by the big players, but market size does not necessarily equate with favorite as these studies from show:



Match group owns the lion’s share of online dating, but the group’s strength resides mainly in the US and other Anglo-Saxon countries. However, there is potential in other regions, including the Middle East.

Online Dating in the Middle East

It may be surprising, but many dating apps and websites operate in the Middle East; however traditional audiences in the region distrust Western dating apps with the perception that these sites are for superficial hookups rather than for serious relationships.

Luckily, there are companies in the Middle East tackling the issue: one of the pioneers and most successful conservative dating websites in the MENA is the Lebanese startup Et3arraf founded in 2012 by Cedric Maalouf and Rakan Nimr.

Funded in 2015 by Berytech Fund 2, Et3arraf has been tackling the stigma of online dating by proposing products that fit with the region’s culture.

Et3arraf - Online Dating Platform in the Middle EastImage from

Et3arraf’s first product “Al Khottaba” (the matchmaker in Arabic) has been very successful in tackling the Saudi Arabian market.

Al Khottaba digitizes with high accuracy and understanding the function that khottabas in KSA perform notably arranging marriages. The experience allows matching couples based on in-depth profiling with AI features.

Once matching is done, the conversation moves to the duo to potentially move further. Et3arraf also launched “Farah” (happiness or marriage in Arabic) in Egypt. Although many features are common to both apps, Farah uses a cross between AI and gamification to match potential couples.

In order to reach a point where audiences felt comfortable using these apps, the Et3arraf team focused on getting users’ feedback and perspectives even when harsh and negative.

When the app was still called “et3arraf” a more conservative audience felt the name was haram, prompting the change to the “Al Khottaba” model. The move was well received as arranged marriages through matchmakers are very common in the Saudi culture.

Other applications such as Hayat, Lovehabibi and Hayati (launched by Lebanese Entrepreneurs) emerged, however, success was limited mainly due to either the perception of being very unregulated or unsafe or because they focused on a very small community (Hayati exclusively targeted Lebanon, one of the smallest MENA countries).

The imbalance in genders, proper moderation and how technology can solve problems

One of the most common problems in online dating is the imbalance between men and women (i.e., 5 to 1 ratio users on Et3arraf) and the perception that women do not have the upper hand.

However, a lot has been done to make online dating a better experience for women.

Bumble, one of the major new players worldwide has women initiating the conversation while Et3arraf uses a mix of gamification and AI in which a lady starts with more than one match then filters through them by having male counterparts answer a quick quiz to increase chemistry.

And although problems such as abuse, fake accounts and harassment still exist, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence can help filter and moderate conversations.

A major component of any successful and respected dating site is customer support and moderation. Moderators must act fast to assess and solve issues and stop any escalation to avoid bad experiences.

There is so much a human mind can process, but the application of AI will help solve a higher number of tickets and reduce cost. Human intervention will always be needed, especially when judging sensitive issues that delve into the emotional and psychological spectrum.

The Future of Online Dating

Online dating is a highly imperfect industry. Finding your match based on predetermined factors is not enough, there are other factors in play such as psychological issues, first impressions and fake information. However, with technology getting more advanced and entrepreneurs becoming more mindful of diversity and creating meaningful relationships, the future looks promising for people looking for meaningful relationships.

Online dating is an industry which will keep getting disrupted by new technological trends. AI is already becoming more prominent especially in crafting and processing stronger matching algorithms and data processing.

Virtual reality is probably the next big trend as the technology becomes more available. Your next first date might be on the top of the Eiffel Tower while you are comfortably sitting at home miles away.



/ About the writer /
Souhail-Khoury-webSouhail Khoury is an Investment Associate at Berytech Fund II. Souhail has more than 7 years of experience in technology and entrepreneurship. Prior to joining Berytech Fund Management, Souhail worked at Samsung’s MENA Headquarters and launched an Accelerator for Intigral, Saudi Telecom’s Digital Media Arm. He has been a judge in many startup competitions in the MENA Region. Souhail holds an MBA from Insead, a Master’s degree in Digital Business and Strategy from HEC Paris and a Computer Engineering Degree from the American University of Beirut.


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