July 31, 2005

Bluetooth Gives Qataris’ Social Life New Dimension

By Odai Sirri

DOHA - "Oh my God! It's him!" squeals 21-year-old Fatima as her mobile phone beeps, alerting her to an incoming message.

She explains to her giggling friends that she has just been contacted by a man she's had her eye on -- although she has yet to meet him -- via the Bluetooth technology in her mobile phone.

The short-range wireless device is challenging age-old customs in Qatar and other Gulf Arab states where the mingling of the sexes remains taboo and many marriages are still arranged by family elders.

Most mobile phones are equipped with Bluetooth and when it is activated, a user can "see" others within a 10-meter (30-feet) radius.

Moments later Fatima receives another message, this time giving the man's name and mobile phone number. "It was a lot harder to meet guys before these new phones," she says as she replies to the message.

Bluetooth was created with the corporate world in mind but its popularity has mushroomed, especially in restrictive societies in the affluent Gulf, whose modern cities and large foreign work force belie a deeply conservative local culture.

Qatar is less restrictive than neighboring Saudi Arabia, which practices a strict version of Islam that forbids men and women who are not related from mixing, but Qataris still find it difficult to socialise without incurring parental or social anger.

Ahmed Hijazi, a 26-year-old Web site designer, says Bluetooth is a welcome addition to his social life.

"It wasn't that long ago when we used to drive along the waterfront, and if we saw a group of girls driving by, we would open our window and throw them one of our mobiles so that we could speak with them," he says.

"It would work, but it wasn't the most efficient way to meet girls. It's much easier today thanks to Bluetooth."


"I don't think anyone in the research and development field ever imagined this technology to be used in these kinds of ways," said Bob Evans, a Doha-based IT consultant.

"What was designed to be a tool for enhanced communication and technological convenience has also opened the door to all sorts of use. And clearly people are having a bit more fun with it than was intended."

In Saudi Arabia, authorities have cautioned against using mobile phones for "immoral" purposes, which includes distributing pictures of unveiled women.

The technology has helped the world's oldest profession thrive in Qatar's Islamic society where prostitution is illegal.

Anxiously sitting at a lounge in one of Doha's five-star hotels, 35-year-old designer Waleed is awaiting a Bluetooth message from a woman seated a few meters away from him.

Bluetooth, he explains, allows him to avoid drawing attention to himself while he tries to make a deal.

"This way, nobody can suspect anything. Its all done discreetly," he says.

His phone beeps, with the answer he was hoping for. "It's as simple as that," he adds, getting up to leave.


Not everyone, however, is impressed with the technology.

Leila, a 24-year-old designer, now turns off the Bluetooth in her mobile in cafes after being harassed by admirers.

"I received this guy's picture and number and thought it was a joke but then I saw him sitting a few tables away from us," she said, referring to the first time she was "Bluetoothed."

"The whole thing is kind of weird."

Like most technology, Bluetooth can be easily abused.

IT expert Evans says it makes mobiles more vulnerable to viruses or crime, referring to high-profile cases with Hollywood stars whose contact lists were lifted from their mobile phones.

Bluetooth can lead to embarrassing situations.

Zeina, 21, discovered a friend's teenage brother was using it to meet older women after he "Bluetoothed" her by mistake.

"I told his sister and we went to his mother and showed her what he had been doing," she said. "His phone was taken away."