05/07/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated May 06, 2016

Saudi Men Try to Catch a Date With Their Smartphones


Tribes of the World via Flickr

When I think about dating in the digital world, the Middle East isn't the first thing coming to mind. But in pursuit of love, oppressed Saudis -- especially men -- are desperately using mobile apps to try to find a date (or spouse?). One such app is CallerSmart, an iPhone service providing caller I.D. and crowdsourced information on phone numbers.

BuzzFeed called CallerSmart "turnt up caller I.D." on their stalker list, 11 Things to Do Before You Start Dating Online -- and that's no exaggeration. By entering a phone number you could learn someone's full name, see comments left on their account, and maybe get a link to their Facebook page. It was the the user comments that caught Arabic speakers using the app romantically.

"We were getting seemingly random comments in Arabic on U.S. phone numbers. We ran those comments through Google Translate and they seemed to be harmless flirting. 'Hi, how are you? You are pretty,' type of stuff." CallerSmart's founder Brian Crane told me in an email.

Eventually, they banned all non-Latin characters to prevent the advances.

"While it's sad that these folks are posting such comments, we had to stop them from doing so because they were messing up the user experience for our other users (whom the app was actually built for)," Crane explained.

According to CallerSmart's Facebook data: 22% of all downloads are from the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia tops the list at 11%. Trailing behind are Iraq (3%), Kuwait (3%), Qatar (2%), Egypt (1%), Lebanon (1%), and United Arab Emirates (1%). Also, 94% of Saudi users are men, compared to 78% of overall Middle Eastern users.

So, at least one-tenth of overall app downloaders are Saudi. This flies in the face of Apple's enforcement of regional App Stores, meaning if you're a Saudi and want to get a USA specific app like CallerSmart, you'll have to go through the trouble of creating a fake Apple I.D. A process that includes creating a US based email account, and using a US address. And don't forget: The app isn't designed to work with Saudi Arabian numbers.

Of course, there's a chance Saudis are acquiring temporary or disposable US phone numbers with web services. For instance, Hushed and Burner allow you to create US phone numbers from your smartphone, numbers that could work on CallerSmart. But is it worth the trouble?

In a country where a man can be arrested for speaking to a woman (who isn't their relative), it is. Social networks (especially U.S. based) can prove to be the sneakiest -- and safest -- way for a man to communicate with a woman.

Vocativ reported on Saudis using mobile apps like WeChat, Tango, Facebook and Twitter to exchange flirtatious messages. Author Dr. Abdul Al Lily, noticed that some social media users replace their username with a phone number, hoping to get a call. Since dating apps like Tinder are banned in Saudi Arabia, using available social media that isn't explicitly for dating is the next best thing.

Not the best for women though, CBS reported last month that a Saudi Arabian man ambigiously accused a woman of "insulting" him on WhatsApp. The details of the conversation weren't released, and they didn't come cheaply: She's forced to pay around $5,300 dollars and suffer 70 lashes.

Venturing on the internet to find love is taken for granted in the West, but online dating has also grabbed the attention of oppressed -- and technologically adept -- Middle Easterners. If it will lead to sexual freedom, or just more secrecy, is another question.