ABU DHABI // Almost 60 per cent of residents in the UAE would not trust the internet dating to find a possible partner, a survey has found.
The negative perceptions of online relationships were revealed in a survey of 765 respondents compiled for Al Aan TV's Nabd Al Arab (Arabs' Pulse) programme by YouGov Siraj.
Dr Soaad Al Oraimi, a professor of gender and development at UAE University, attributed them to deeply rooted social customs.
"We must not forget that the country is only 40 years old," Dr Al Oraimi said. "We are still in the process of transition. Technology moves very fast, however tradition changes very slowly."
This is particularly true when it comes to culturally sensitive topics, such as marriage.
"We are not shopping for items here that you can just return if you are not happy," Dr Al Oraimi said. "We are talking about marriage, a life-changing commitment."
The numbers from the survey clearly reflected this. Nearly three quarters (71 per cent) said they would trust the internet to pay bills, and 61 per cent would use it to voice their opinion about social news.
But only 22 per cent said they would trust the internet in their search for a partner.
Mohammed Masri, a Palestinian resident of Dubai, said the internet was often perceived in Arab society as an intruder.
"After the Second World War, generations were brought up with overprotective and secure families," Mr Masri said. "And strangers are always a threat to your family and children.
"Four generations later, when the internet was introduced, it was as though it broke into our homes."
But perceptions vary between communities. Only a third (32 per cent) of Emiratis believe society is ready to make the switch from traditional courtship to online methods, compared with two thirds (68 per cent) of Arab expatriates.
Parental acceptance of the spouse also plays a significant role, said Dr Al Oraimi.
"The mother or father still likes to know whom their child is marrying and the potential spouse's background," she said. "The children also know that the reaction from the parents will be very negative.
"Imagine a [local] girl telling her father she met someone online and she wants to marry him. What would the reaction be?
"She knows that if the marriage doesn't work she will not have her parents' support. As a result, she avoids this option all together."
This wariness is understandable, says Dana Shadid, the brand and business development manager at Al Aan TV.
"The culture we live in makes it awkward to choose a partner in an unorthodox manner," Ms Shadid said. "Also, people in this time and age are extremely alert with what they seek in a partner. Most importantly, they want to know a person more before committing to them.
"Even if the web makes it easier for two people to meet, there are still other factors that play a big role."
Asians showed greater acceptance of online dating. Four in five (82 per cent) Asian respondents thought it was socially acceptable to find a partner online.
A simple internet search for online introduction services in the UAE reveals a number of sites catering to south Asians. Among the most prominent is Shaadi ("marriage").
With nearly 70,000 active members in the UAE and 8,000 more signing up each month, Shaadi offers a number of packages and options to its users.
Gaurav Rakshit, the website's head of business, attributed the greater acceptance by south Asians to an understanding that the internet is merely a medium for the initial connection.
"The traditional approach in the South Asian community is arranged marriages," Mr Rakshit said. "The two families would meet and then decide if their children are compatible.
"However, with our domain this is reversed. The individuals have an opportunity to meet first and then decide if they are compatible and if they should get the families involved."
The site places great store in trust, verifying its members' identity by demanding documentation. Verified users receive a "Shaadi Seal" on their profiles, which is visible to other members.
That is a natural response to one of users' biggest fears. Three quarters (74 per cent) of respondents believe online relationships are more likely to be built on lies or deception.
Aisha Al Busaidy, an Emirati communications professional who works for the Government, said provocative messages on social network sites only amplified these negative perceptions.
"There is still this perception that people only use these websites for flirting. For example, you can always see ads online that say 'meet hot Russian girls'," Ms Al Busaidy said.
"I'm sure there are many respectful websites out there but after being constantly exposed to such messages people continue to believe that meeting someone online is something dirty."
Dr Al Oraimi believes these perceptions will change.
"Generations who were raised with the internet could find it a viable option because they have been exposed to the idea from the beginning," she said.
"It is not completely out of the question; it just needs time."