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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Harmonica: How the Arabic dating app aims to help Egyptians find a 'life partner'

It is the only dating platform available in Arabic and provides a digital space for young Egyptians to meet potential partners

Three of Harmonica’s co-founders, from left, Sameh Saleh, Shaymaa Aly and Aly Khaled Metwally. Courtesy Harmonica
Three of Harmonica’s co-founders, from left, Sameh Saleh, Shaymaa Aly and Aly Khaled Metwally. Courtesy Harmonica

Western dating apps are often perceived as a space to meet new people in a casual setting with low commitment. That’s where Egyptian dating app Harmonica is different – it caters to the local market by providing a platform where singles can connect and chat in the hopes of finding their “life partner”.

“We’re overwhelmed with the interest and data we’ve received, because no one has tried to do anything like this ever before,” says Harmonica co-founder and chief executive Sameh Saleh, 31, who has received 50 confirmed accounts of matches that turned into marriage proposals since the app launched in November 2017. He predicts that the actual number is at least 10 times as high, since cultural factors may often cause users to shy away from publicly admitting that they met their fiancee on a dating app.

How it works

To help users find serious relationships in a conventional Muslim country, the app categorises users based on their preferences, personalities and interests as opposed to broader factors such as proximity within a particular radius. With the help of the team of psychologists, former mechanical engineer Saleh and his three co-founders use the answers to a maximum of 100 questions asked, to customise potential matches.

Saleh’s explanation of the overall methodology sounds like a localised personality test, since users’ responses help the app automatically assess their priorities, lifestyle and various other factors more accurately, with each response through an algorithm that helps tailor users’ basket of potential matches. Questions range from those addressing personal grooming habits to interpersonal skills.

But it’s not all based on mere character traits. To join Harmonica, users complete a short questionnaire that resembles a first meeting with a prospective mother-in-law or an annoying neighbour. After filling in a short bio and perhaps uploading a couple of pictures, the questions that follow ask users their degree level, line of work, median income, which university they attended and their religious affiliation.

Factors of concern to many conservative singles, such as social class, financial differences and spiritual belief systems, are made clear at the outset, facilitating the prospect of assessing compatibility long before any courtship begins. A new feature allows users to keep responses to some questions private.

Almost in a move for further parental approval, the application is incredibly secure; users can’t sign up unless they have an active Facebook account that is at least two years old; are prohibited from taking screenshots in the app; and validate their accounts by uploading a selfie through Harmonica, which is checked for a resemblance to posted photos.

Plans to expand

In a country where English is the common language online, Harmonica is the only dating app available in Arabic. For many years, Saleh witnessed first-hand the pressures women in his family faced to get married, from their early twenties and through their thirties, creating stress that he believes leads many young people to settle for an unsuitable partner, and which may eventually lead to divorce.

“When I travelled abroad for my studies, I realised that when it comes to marriage, the rest of the world doesn’t have the same problems that we do in the Arab world,” says Saleh, who spent the early part of his career in Malaysia.

One of his four co-founders, Shaymaa Aly, 35, who recently gave birth to her first child, previously wrote extensively on social media about her dating woes, and found countless young men and women writing back that they suffered from similar issues. A former specialist at Bibliotheca Alexandria, Aly is a social media influencer of sorts who has more than 100,000 followers on her personal Facebook page. “We try to ensure that people who meet on the app are truly suitable for each other and that’s why we rely so heavily on the answers to the questions they type in,” says Aly.

Given Harmonica’s strong focus on monogamy, patrons are permitted to view no more than 10 potential matches a day. Once a mutual match takes place, the pair is only allowed to speak with their sole prospect. A week later, if neither side has unmatched, a survey released to both parties assesses whether they should continue chatting for an additional month.

Saleh, who founded ­Harmonica with Aly and two others, says the plan is to expand the app regionally within the next three years. “We want to become the leading platform for people in the region who are looking to wed, he says, “and contribute to decreasing divorce rates.”

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