Iman’s sister met the love of her life at a concert in Dubai. The couple started talking to each other on Facebook, which led to them falling in love and dating each other for six years before they finally tied the knot last year in a fabulous wedding that was a union of not just two people who were madly in love, but also of two families.
They had the perfect meet-cute, that fairytale first-meeting chemistry and magic that forges a connection of a lifetime. The stuff Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies are made of.
‘But that’s a one-off case, she got lucky,’ says 28-year-old Iman, a Somali national who has grown up in the UAE.
Mathematicians at the University of Bath agree with Iman. A study published last year cautions that leaving your love life to the whimsies of Lady Luck isn’t the best way to meet your soulmate – your odds of meeting that someone special are 1 in 562. As far as odds go, that is a depressingly slim chance, but there’s a silver lining – you can actively increase your chances by signing up to a dating website, the study suggests.
While her sister was the lucky one in that sample group, Iman and a growing number of millennials in the UAE are losing at the numbers game that is dating – losing patience with dates and romantic interludes through apps that lead nowhere; losing time, a worry for those women who want to have children; and often losing hope because of the rejections and break-ups that make a major dent to their self-confidence and sense of self-worth.
It is often at this stage that they turn to the expert guidance of professional matchmakers.
‘When they call me, it’s an emergency, they need someone who is pre-selected, where the screening has been done beforehand,’ says Angelika Lancsak, a professional matchmaker and founder of Elite Matchmaking, an Austrian matchmaking company that also works with clients in the UAE.
A growing number of young singles in the UAE are signing up and registering themselves on matchmaking services: Swiss-based matchmaking agency Macbeth International has a database of over 2,000 singles from the UAE in the last year and has seen a steady growth in registrations from the region since 2010. Co-founder and matchmaker Carla De Blasi says that around 95 per cent of her UAE clients are expatriates who don’t stay in the country longer than five years.
Purvangi Shukla, an Ahmedabad-based matchmaker, runs Elite Vivaah, a personalised matchmaking service that caters to the Indian diaspora around the world and she has an online binder full of men and women – 2,000 single Indians from the UAE, to be specific.
Some singles are going against the grain and ditching dating apps for services that guarantee them introductions to like-minded people who share the same expectations and objectives, which is often marriage. A Greatist survey from 2017 that shows that 60 per cent of 4,000 millennials interviewed prefer meeting people in real life instead of through dating apps.
‘Dating apps for some is a horrible experience – when you’re a young man or woman looking to find love and settle down, you’re vulnerable,’ Angelika explains. She does all the leg work for her clients, rooting out the gold-diggers, the serial daters, the online predators; vetting them through in-depth interviews and phone calls and Skype chats before taking them on as clients. ‘What I do is a kind of headhunting,’ says the matchmaker, who’s been introducing singles in the UAE to their soulmates since 2002.
Clients come to Purvangi after they’ve tried every trick in the book, from meeting someone through conventional methods – from asking friends to set them up to socialising more: ‘They’ve tried it all and they’re tired of swiping through profiles; they want a human connection.’
Another reason Iman doesn’t enjoy dating apps like Tinder is because of the ‘grass is greener’ mentality they promote, what with the sheer number of options they provide: ‘I have friends who meet someone really nice and genuine but they think “what if there’s someone better out there for me?” and it hinders them from seeing the value of the person they’re with and they continue playing the field.’
Charles, a 35-year-old English teacher from the UK, hasn’t had success with dating apps since he moved to the UAE six years ago and feels they genuinely don’t make finding love any easier: ‘On these apps and even on social media, people put up only the most exciting aspects about themselves. Most of us are not that exciting 24 hours a day, so it feels like people are pretending a lot. It’s also a Dubai thing that everything has to be special and exciting. I’m an English teacher who loves all things sports and fitness – this as exciting as my life gets.’
Finding love in a transient place
Gourav Rakshit, the CEO of Indian matrimonial website Shaadi.com, says 500 people from the UAE register on the website daily – a clear indication that people are looking for a long-term relationship, not an interlude.
One reason for the rise in singles opting for matchmaking services are the difficulties that are unique to UAE’s dating scene.
33-year-old Kaya, a North Indian media professional who’s a dyed-in-the-wool Dubai kid, and single, thinks one of the reasons is the transient nature of most of the UAE’s expat population. ‘People stay here for longer than they plan to but their heart is always in a transit stage, so you never know if they want to build a base. There’s definitely a commitment-phobia.’
As second-generation expats, it matters to Kaya and Iman that any potential mate of theirs continues living in Dubai. ‘Dubai is my home now and if the person I’m dating wants to move out of here I see that as a problem and I see them in a different light,’ explains Kaya.
There is also the cultural dichotomy that is distinctive to the UAE’s third-culture kids. For most, clubs, bars and parties aren’t places where they expect to find a serious partner.
‘It’s mainly why I decided to get married the traditional way and tried the matchmaking route,’ says Honey, a 25-year-old from Kerala who’s a second-generation expatriate. ‘I feel it’s been a good call. I had tried meeting people through family and friends, which didn’t work out, and to find someone from the same religion and community in the UAE is difficult.’
Arranged marriages have taken on a whole new life in the 21st century – people are no longer pushed into marrying their parents’ choice; instead they are deciding to find someone to complete them once they have accomplished milestones such as a stable career and finances and globe-trotting. Gourav calls this ‘planned marriage’. It’s ‘still very much a coming together of two families and it’s not arranged nor is it love, because it’s deliberate’.
Honey is one such person. She decided to get married once she had a stable job and financial security. ‘I had been single my whole life and felt it was time to have that someone special to share my life with.’
Once they reach that stage, millennials are much more serious and seek marriage and companionship as opposed to dating, says Iman: ‘Marriage was never a pressing priority for me until now. I would now like to have someone with whom I can share my successes with and talk about my day.’
All kinds of matchmaking for all people
A by-product of the UAE’s multiculturalism is that there’s a variety of matchmaking services to suit different cultures, budgets and mindsets.
Approaching a matchmaker sounds archaic, conjuring up images of inquisitive middle-aged ladies who can spot eligible bachelors and unmarried young women a mile off and accost unsuspecting singles or their parents with a folder full of biodata.
No longer. While women still seem to spearhead the industry, founding and owning many matchmaking businesses and apps, traditional matchmaking methods have evolved to become palatable to the tech-savvy, independent, well-travelled and opinionated millennials in their twenties and thirties who are the core matchmaking clientele.
JLo had it wrong – love can cost a lot
And that’s where the dotcom domain of matchmaking comes in – the matrimonial websites. Culturally, matrimonial websites are predominantly from the Indian subcontinent – Shaadi.com, Pakistani Matrimony.com, Jeevan Saathi and Simply Marry are just some of a long list. It’s on one such matrimonial website that Honey met her husband: ‘They charged me around Dh700 for a six-month membership and I thought that was fair. I met him eight months after joining.’
Purvangi, Carla and Angelika’s companies come at a hefty price tag as they provide one-to-one consultations (Purvangi and Carla head a team, while Angelika is a one-woman show) and do not share profiles without the individual’s consent. Macbeth’s rates start from Dh22,000 per person, including an in-depth analysis by the team’s many psychologists and relationship experts and access to singles meet-ups; it takes an average of six months to meet your match.
Purvangi charges Rs35,000 (Dh2,000) per client for a membership that’s valid until they find a match and includes conference calls and face-to-face meetings with her, during which she uses her life coaching and linguistics programme training to understand what her clients want in a partner.
Angelika’s matchmaking services cost Dh16,000 for a regular contact; she’s a real-life Patti Stanger (host of reality TV show Millionaire Matchmaker) who has matched the rich and well-to-do from around the world since 1992. Russian oligarchs, Indian business moguls and Middle Eastern princes make up her clientele; only last week she matched an Italian doctor with an Emirati businessman.
The matrimonial websites function a lot like their dating counterparts – they’re user-friendly and splash their members’ biodata and pictures online, a feature the personalised matchmakers are vehemently against. But at the end of the day, they’re all fulfilling the same function – introducing people who have marriage and a happily-ever-after on their minds. The websites just do it in a tech-enabled manner.
‘Through our communal surveys, we’ve learnt that people consider Shaadi.com a blessing, because in real life, beyond friends’ circles, people don’t really know where to look [for a partner].
‘Like you use Facebook to stay connected with friends, you can stay in touch with potential partners on Shaadi.com,’ says Gourav. Unlike Facebook, however, Shaadi.com comes with a membership fee.
It is not just an expat thing
Keeping it tech-savvy but free is Emirati matchmaker Umm Kawthar and her group of local mothers who are well-known khattabahs (traditional matchmakers) within their tribes. They’ve made the leap from family majlises, where she has matched people for the last 10 years, into the pixelated world that young Emirati men and women love – Instagram. UAE Marriage Makers, her two-and-half-year-old service, was launched on the image-sharing app so the matchmakers can ‘display a [potential candidate’s] photo, which attracts people more easily and remains available for everyone to search – and because Instagram is the most-used social-media platform amongst Emiratis’.
Umm Kawthar is pernickety about only receiving requests from the man or woman themselves or from their parents, as is Emirati tradition. She doesn’t accept requests from friends or relatives of candidates. She’s got 14 successful matches under her belt since the private Instagram account started. ‘It’s a voluntary service by Emirati mothers for their sons and daughters,’ she says.
Another such community-based matchmaking initiative is run by Ayesha Sohail, a Pakistani teacher and boutique owner who runs the Facebook group Shareek-e-Hayat. She started it in May 2017 to make up for the social circle expatriate families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh lose when they move to the UAE. She’s been living in the UAE for 25 years and couldn’t find a match for a relative after paying many matchmaking services: ‘That is why we’re a free, not-for-profit group that just wants to make groom- or bride-hunting easier for people.’ The closed, women-only group separates the wheat from the chaff through comprehensive interviews; single men have to ask a female relative to add them to the group and share their profile. So far, the group has managed one successful match and eight potential matches are underway.
Before she met her husband, Honey found the idea of being on a matrimonial website insulting: ‘It always felt a little like marketing yourself based on your qualities. Receiving Facebook requests from men who’d viewed my profile was the most annoying part.’
Where is the love?
Amal, a 25-year-old Palestinian woman, finds traditional arranged marriages and matrimonial websites scary and loveless: ‘It’s part of our culture to arrange a match for your children or point out singles to someone else in the community but I’ve never been comfortable with it. I’ve had people bring their sons home to meet me but it was too awkward. We were missing the excitement of knowing someone without any strings attached.’
Kaya is on the same page as Amal: ‘I’ve seen friends who are so happy with people they met on matrimonial websites. It’s not for me because I find it a tense and systematic method of finding a partner with the pressure that something has to come of this process. I’d rather meet people on social media.’
That’s where the misconception lies, Shaadi.com’s Gourav says: ‘Because you’re meeting people you don’t know, meetings on matchmaking websites are serendipitous. Sometimes, they meet people who live just down the road. Having the initial contact online doesn’t reduce the specialness or romance
of a first meeting. It isn’t as transactional as it looks from an outside perspective.’
In Jerry Maguire’s words, it can complete you
Dr Tara Wyne is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of LightHouse Arabia, and says looking for love through matchmaking websites isn’t a desperate measure. She encourages people to steer clear of value judgements. Not everyone reaches for the same book in a library and falls in love at first sight.
‘Many people who are looking for partners are not necessarily going to find them in traditional ways. Life has moved on – whether it’s social media, dating apps, matchmaking websites, it’s all normal now. We have to look at the fact that there is no singular reality that is right or wrong. [Moreover], one of our core needs is to have close ties and attachments to another person and a healthy relationship can be very fulfilling and it can really feel like you’re flourishing.’
Riti Bahel, 28, and Rajat Kapoor, 32, are Abu Dhabi-based newlyweds who met through Shaadi.com last year. Having been in long-term relationships that didn’t work out, they were both emotionally fatigued with the dating scene and ready for marriage; for someone to share their lives with. While Riti had been on the website for almost a year, Rajat’s search lasted only five months.
Riti, who was based in India, fondly remembers her first meeting with Rajat; he flew to Mumbai a month after they started talking on the phone on January 9, 2017. ‘I spilled water on him out of nervousness; I’m a clumsy person. My sister always used to tell me that the guy who’s okay with your clumsiness is the one. Rajat didn’t react and it worked out perfectly – our first date lasted the entire day.’
Rajat knew he had met the one when he spent three hours talking to Riti on their first phone call. ‘It’s difficult to find someone you can talk to that much and we were both looking for friends. We used to go to a lot of the same places in Mumbai and used to do similar things but we never met until Shaadi.com.’
They were engaged in March, court-married in April and married in a traditional Punjabi ceremony on October 1, 2017 in Goa and Riti moved to Abu Dhabi soon after.
‘This whole process of sorting through profiles and meeting someone didn’t take away the romance for us – in fact it’s more exciting for us because we’re still learning so much about each other,’ Rajat says.
Riti believes that it isn’t the nature of the marriage – arranged or love – but two people’s compatibility that decides chemistry and romance: ‘There’s a notion that arranged marriages lack chemistry and love but that’s not true. Love is about luck – you never know how and when it hits you.’
All names have been changed