In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just like in Manhattan, swiping right means “DTF”, 420 means let’s get stoned, and the beers emoji means you’re interested in going out for pints. In the Western English-speaking world, we’ve developed these shorthand signifiers over time; just as spoken vernacular is constantly evolving, so too is textual vernacular. These signifiers are products of the last ten years, smartphones and virtual social networking, and cultural icons like Bob Marley and Kim Kardashian. But in Saudi Arabia, an isolated Wahhabist paradise – and the largest and wealthiest country in the Middle East – these abbreviative signs are handy rhetorical devices for tapping into an unrestrained subculture while under the seemingly inescapable gaze of government censors.
Dating in Saudi Arabia, aside from being logistically impossible (public spaces are divided into bachelors and family-only zones), is illegal. But then again, most products of modern life, particularly American culture, are. This does not mean that Saudi Arabians do not drink, do drugs, watch porn, and have sex. In the modern nation-state – be it liberal or Wahhabist – law-making is myth-making, and legal jargon, enforced by lashes and the death penalty, is fodder for the Saudi government, whose interests lie in maintaining the integrity and validity of the national imaginary. The instantiation of a national legal code supposedly creates and conscripts a legally sanctioned citizen, one that fits nicely within the Wahhabist doctrine of the Kingdom.
Saudi individual does not exist outside of the bounds of the law. After all, there is no greater myth created by the law than the fact that it is completely constitutive of culture, that it sets the parameters within which culture exists. It should be no surprise that there’s a vibrant, thriving subculture in Saudi Arabia, where individuals express themselves extralegally. Though it may be more invisible and covert than other subcultures in the modern world, it’s just as sexually charged, illicit, and unfiltered. Having access to this subculture is like being allowed into a VIP club that feels like a marriage between Soho House and Burning Man. Bacchanalian events feature Saudi princes wielding Kalashnikovs at men who eye their women, cheetahs on top of Lamborghinis, and falcons perched on the shoulders of scantily-clad Eastern European women. The scene is populated by char- acters like Elisa from Brazil, who moved to Jeddah to teach Salsa dancing, and Sam, an actor who moved from France to learn Arabic so he could play a part of a kid in the banlieues and make some extra cash.
This sybaritism is not entirely expat-produced; though expats do play a large role in the formation of the Saudi subculture, there are also many Saudi nationals in the scene. Usually the locals hail exclusively from the upper echelons of society. They’re either royalty or pseudo-royalty, coming from the ten or so wealthiest families in the nation. If your name bears the mark of one of them, you are likely hosting the craziest parties in the Kingdom.The representative image of the traditionally clad, hidden, and subdued Saudi individual is deceptive, and, over the past five years, works like the novel Girls of Riyadh and social bloggers – most of whose blogs get removed instantly, or live outside the Kingdom – have exposed this deception. The fact that Wahhabist laws in Saudi Arabia mandate a particular mode of existence does not mean that the individuals that live within it are producing the same culture that existed at the time of the Prophet. Saudi Arabian subculture is just as cosmopolitan as it is in New York, London, Berlin, and Hong Kong. That is to say that it is modular, exportable, unoriginal, and very American.
Because the simulacrum of Saudi Arabia created by Wahhabi legal doctrine is ostensibly devoid of culture, this debaucherous “sub-culture” becomes the only manifest form of “culture” in the Kingdom. If, per Raymond Williams, we take culture as a record of reactions to the changes in social, economic, and political life that come with the advent of modernity, we can see that this “sub-culture” – entirely a reaction to the creation of a legally inscribed Saudi Arabian nation-state – is just simply culture.
A MYTH OF SEXUAL REPRESSION
Sex has always been an important feature of the Orientalist fantasy. The deviant sexual activities of women in the harem – a lascivious gaze behind the veil, a bare ankle jingling with bangles at every step – are a fixation of nineteenth-century Orientalist literature about the Middle East. In Desiring Arabs, Joseph Massad argues that over the course of the colonial encounter and the Middle East’s “entrance” into modernity, Victorian notions of appropriate and shameful sexual behavior created a sexually repressed Arabic-Islamic colonial subject. Sexual behaviors that had been known, but tactfully unnamed, became codified as “taboo” through colonial juridical interventions. In Western discourse, the veiled woman
– eroticized and fetishized as a mystical sexual object in nineteenth century colonial writings – became a decidedly sexually repressed being, represented by images that promulgate her supposed piety and subdued domesticity. This image of the sexually repressed Muslim woman continues to structure repre- sentations of Middle Eastern individuals today, and is most salient in the Saudi Arabian case. Saudi Arabian women and men alike are represented by those within and outside the Middle East as sexually repressed, constrained, and deprived. Saudi Arabia legally mandates the veil, a paramount material signifier of sexual repression in the Western imaginary, and forbids women from driving cars or leaving the house alone. It is inconclusive to deduce from these legal measures that the material reality of a Saudi Arabian woman is a legally repressed one, and it is important to read nuance into her condition. For instance, most Saudi women I have spoken to conceive of driving as beneath them, too banal a task for a woman to undertake. And while women float down the sidewalk in their self-effacing black flowing garb – sometimes in the hellish 120 degree fog that fills cities like Jeddah in the summer months – they relish in the opportunity to host all-female gatherings where they can show off their Givenchy and Prada threads to other women. These women show no interest in allowing other men access to this spectacle; the aphorism that women dress for women holds true in the Wahhabi desert.
While these examples push back against the image of total female repression, the digital interactions and shorthand signifiers produced by an uninhibited virtual reality debunk this myth entirely. The medium through which women are interacting with the masculinized public sphere resembles the veil – they are able to selectively emit content virtually from their position behind the screen of the computer, iPhone, iPad, or iPod, all common household gadgets in the Kingdom. The screen, like the veil, protects these women, their honor, their piety, while simultaneously allowing them to participate in a set of social mores that, while legally taboo, produce a culture in the nation they inhabit. This dual function, a dyadic existence of upholding legally inscribed Wahhabist values while being an unrestrained cultural subject, is only made possible by the veil, or by the screen. In many ways the emergence of online communities that perpetuate illicit activities are merely a modern technological extension of a structural social and cultural formation that has been in place since the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
SWIPING RIGHT IN SAUDI
Tinder in Saudi Arabia is as sexually charged, illicit, and unfiltered as it is in New York. While in Saudi Arabia, I went on Tinder out of both curiosity and boredom, to see if the swipe fever had made it across the Arabian desert. I also tried downloading Grindr, to see if it, too, had been overlooked by the Saudi authorities, who successfully block most sites and applications that provide avenues for illicit behavior or communication. After all, this is the country that blurs women’s revealed shoulders in the 1940s Egyptian films that rerun on national televi- sion. Grindr was definitely blocked. But Tinder, surprisingly, was not – and provided me an unexpected entry into a vibrant online community. The Saudi government’s selective allowance of Tinder over Grindr (though Tinder is more mainstream, it also has options for queer matching) makes it seem like the Saudi Arabian government is sanctioning one type of illicit online activity while banning another. With the rise of surveillance practice and state intervention, it is clear that the Saudi government is aware of the illicit subcultures – including both homosexual and heterosexual activity – that exist within its borders. But there are degrees of illicitness, and they are completely mediated by the Saudi government either through juridical measures like adultery laws or overt state intervention like disabling apps and shutting down blogs. In this way, it becomes evident that the online medium is only an extension of an existing structure of social mores that allow for “culture” to exist.
As I reside on a compound an hour outside of Jeddah (known as being the most “liberal” city in Saudi Arabia), I adjusted my settings to include the neighboring cities and small villages. I tried a host of settings, but settled largely on men age 23-33. The results were overwhelming. It seemed as if “swiping left” was not really an option that was utilized, and that these men were only swiping right, trying their luck to see what they could get. Each swipe is a gamble: is the other person going to be conservative or liberal? How far will they take the interaction? Are they privy to the lexicon of this subculture? With this gamble, the stakes are higher: in an extreme case, the person on the other side could be affiliated with a particularly powerful family, political party, or they could even be the mutaween – the moral police. These risks up the ante: the potential of disrepute, scandal, or arrest at each swipe results in the encryption of the game. This is where signifiers like DTF, 4/20, and emojis come into play. They weave the web of symbols and representations that allow entry into this virtual game.
On principle, I swiped right at every single profile I came across. After an hour of swiping, I became sensitized to the exag- gerated sexual expression of each profile, whether it was through images or through text. Locals and expats alike both used English on their profiles to present them- selves, although the former a bit more haphazardly than the latter. Some conversations I engaged with were intriguing: expats who came to work from Germany and Pakistan discussing the transition into Saudi life; a Saudi man who intended to move abroad to study public policy; a Lebanese man who moved to Saudi to work in oil. These individuals were all privy to the mechanisms of cultural production in Tinderland, and most of them – especially the expats – came with seemingly global sexual mores.Nobody in Saudi is going on Tinder to find a girlfriend. While somewhere like Manhattan, there’s a wide range of attitudes towards finding a female partner on Tinder – anywhere between “lets hook up” to “I’m looking for a serious partner” – in Saudi, match-making happens in carefully coded, reserved forms. Tinder is thus reserved for hook-ups and quick sex. There’s no grey area. As a result, a nuanced reading of Tinder profiles in Saudi proves that the sexual activities that occur in the virtual space are more exaggerated and expressive than those that transpire in the limited schema of Western sexual standards. The images presented were possibly the most revealing elements of the profiles. The most common thread in the profiles were the over-the-top representations of masculinity: men with cheetahs, falcons, lions, and cars. One man was straddling an upright cheetah on its hind legs in an undeniably phallic image. Another had his hand down his pants with a caption that read: “I’ll tell your mom we met at the library.” Changing the settings to “females only” yielded similarly exaggerated results; some women posted selfies that emphasized cleavage, while others postured with more masculinized portraits, wearing khakis and showing off short haircuts. Unfortunately, I did not initiate any conversations with women for fear of getting caught, and quickly switched back to heterosexual settings, which posed less of a risk. Ultimately, it was clear that everyone on Tinder was there to foray into a world of unleashed sexual activity, liberated from the constraints of public society.
Tinder in Saudi Arabia does not necessarily reproduce the same set of dating norms and modes of sexuality that are prevalent in Western uses of the application. If Tinder in Saudi Arabia is an opportunity to release individuals within Saudi from imposed notions of sexual repression, then the hypersexualized community that emerges from it is more unrestrained than anything that happens on Tinder in New York today. Tinder does more than fuel a market for American-imported dating apps; it is not merely an example of disruptive innovation in the global free market. Importing the medium of Tinder does not necessarily mean importing all of Western sexual norms. Rather, Tinder provides space for uninhibited forms of sexual expression that react to legally codified repressive norms of sexuality in the Kingdom.Can I say that the average Saudi Arabian individual on Tinder is outwardly “sexually liberated” or “sexually expressive”? Perhaps. But it’s certain that Tinder in Saudi Arabia is not an exceptional instance of liberalism in an archaic desert land. The particularities of Saudi Tinder indicate that the individuals engaging in the illicit sexual activities within the parameters of virtual reality are navigating and manipulating the medium of Tinder to create and preserve a dynamic counterculture. Tinder provides a space to both resist Wahhabist legal constraints and complicate Western liberal cultural sexual standards. Don’t get me wrong: the Saudi subject on Tinder is not a revolutionary, but they are certainly a sexual being in a way that is not legally permissible in the Saudi Arabian public sphere. In this sense, Tinder is, at best, a creative site of individual sexual expression within the borders of the Wahhabist Kingdom. Tinder is not necessarily changing the culture of sex in Saudi Arabia: there was always a Saudi counterculture. Only now, you can download it in an app.
You can find Mariam within 100 kilo- meters of Jeddah if you search for girls aged 18-25.