MUSCAT // Matchmakers in Oman are facing stiff competition from social networking sites such as Facebook.
Until recently, matchmakers had a corner here on the marriage-brokering market, navigating the complex ties of kin and tribe to arrange the nuptials of two young people who are not in love or may even have never met. Their services were invaluable in a culture where it is taboo for two young people to court in public or even meet alone before marriage.
But now Omani youth are increasingly logging on to social networking websites to find romance, and even a spouse. Popular sites such as Facebook allow them to sidestep matchmakers - typically elderly women - giving them the privacy and freedom to cultivate relationships that sometimes lead to marriage.
Reem al Hinai, 27, a customer service executive working for a telecommunications company in Muscat, said: "If you cannot flirt face-to-face because of parental restrictions, then Facebook can do it for you at a distance. In some cases, it leads to marriage to a person of your choice."
Ms al Hinai met her husband 18 months ago on Facebook. They logged on and "talked" for hours every day before they met secretly three months later at a friend's house. They were married seven months later.
Nabil al Hadidi, 17, says Facebook is a winning proposition for romance-seeking teenagers looking to escape parental control.
"You stay in the good books of mum and dad, while having fun with your girlfriend. Who knows? I might even marry her one day," Ms al Hadidi said said.
Statistics from Oman's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority show more than a third of Oman's internet users, or 2.5 million web subscribers, have a Facebook account.
The authority does not maintain statistics on the age group or gender of the users. But Salim al Rashdi, 36, a former networking engineer for the agency, estimated that more than half are under the age of 25.
"It is the only place where a girl and a boy can find a match away from public scrutiny for a potential marriage," he said.
Some parents approve of cyber-romance, saying its saves the embarrassment of their children being seen courting in public places. Others are realistic, too, pointing out that there is little they can do to stop it. Still others say it is the results that matter.
Khalaf al Mansoori, 56, a health inspector, said: "It is foolish to oppose it if the outcome is going to be a long and happy marriage. Besides, it is done discreetly and out of the public gaze." To be sure, some parents are furious about a technology they say encourages their children to veer away from traditional values.
Younis al Haddabi said internet courting and face-to-face meetings for marriage-age youth were equally unacceptable. "It is immoral, and we should not encourage it," said Mr al Haddabi, 62 and a property broker. He advocates the blocking of websites such as Facebook to prevent the corruption of young minds.
Mr al Mansoori said that was "going over the top". Instead, "these young people should be praised for respecting local traditions and at the same time courting discreetly to save face for their parents".
Despite the increasing popularity of social networking websites, matchmakers feel in no danger of losing out to digital technology and becoming obsolete.
One of the practitioners of traditional matchmaking, Fatma Fallahy, 75, said: "Only the small minority choose to marry that way. Matchmaking still dominates our marriages in Oman." However, Ms Hinai, the young business executive, says that while traditional matchmaking still holds sway in Oman, it will eventually succumb.
"What keeps two people together in a marriage is shared values and principles, and the internet gives them the opportunity to discover each other before they make the decision," she said.
Mr al Rashdi, who married a woman from his own tribe in an arranged marriage, said neither the matchmaker nor the computer are foolproof.
"In arranged marriages, you rely on the matchmaker to give you a good match. Sometimes they get it horribly wrong. On the other hand, meeting your spouse on the internet can backfire since some people try to impress one another to make an impression. My suggestion is that you do what you think is right for you," Mr al Rashdi said.