Middle East

Brief encounters for young Saudis in Jeddah aid effort

It's rare for young men and women in Saudi Arabia to meet members of the opposite sex face to face. But a flood relief effort in Jeddah has brought young people together, in a way their counterparts in other countries take for granted.

Image caption The organisers accepted volunteers of both sexes

The Jeddah Exhibition Centre has become the temporary headquarters of an effort to deliver aid to thousands of people left homeless by recent floods.

It's run by three of the city's most influential women - Sarah, Fatin and Rasha - who used Facebook to gather donations and rally helpers. Dozens of volunteers came forward - both male and female.

In this Kingdom, that presents a problem. A woman may not mix with a man who is not an immediate relative.

But for the sake of the flood victims - many of them pilgrims who stayed on illegally in the country after completing the Hajj to Mecca - the Volunteer Relief Effort turned no willing helpers away.

Ehab has been here every day since the floods began.

"Now is not the time to ask why we are mixing," he says, "Now is the time to help. Sure, usually we have no mixing here, but now we have to help people. Anyway, with Facebook we mix online now."

He proudly tells me he has more than 400 Facebook friends.

"Many of them are girls," he adds with a smile.

As Ehab is talking to me a female volunteer comes up and puts her hand on his shoulder.

"Yalla," she says - let's go.

Hate messages

I'm surprised. I've never seen a man and woman touch in public in Saudi. Ehab registers my reaction.

"Here the women I am working with, they are like my friends now," he says. "I feel like I know them well."

Image caption Pilgrims who made the Hajj to Mecca are among those in need of aid

Donations for the relief effort have been pouring in. But Sarah, Fatin and Rasha, have also received hate messages.

One text says that the organisers will burn in hell for allowing men and women to work together.

The religious police, the Mutawa, whose role is to preserve the virtue of the nation, could turn up at any moment and arrest unrelated men and women caught socialising.

"If they come," says Fatin, "I will tell them, roll up your sleeves and help or get out."

Make-up

Her determination to continue with the aid work is shared by everyone involved.

Ehab and his team are heading out to distribute supplies.

Before they go, some of the girls stop to use the toilet. They also take time to adjust their hair and make-up. Then out they go, ready to mix with the boys.

Many volunteers are in their late teens. Of course, they've volunteered out of the goodness of their hearts, but for some there's also another reason.

As a boy lifts four mattresses on to his back, three girls stand watching, and smile. He struggles past them like Superman. Even here boys will be boys when they want to impress girls.

With limited mixing in general life, these young people believe that here there could be an opportunity for them to meet someone.

"To find someone to marry, I have to somehow catch their eye," one shy 19-year-old girl tells me. "Then eventually when he has seen me a few times, he might go to his mother and tell her to call my mother. Then we can meet if they agree."

This is something the organisers are aware of. They're on the look-out for behaviour that might disrupt the operation.

"One boy came in wearing a vest with his muscles bulging," Sarah tells me. "I said, are you crazy? You walk into that room, the girls will stop work." She told him to come back properly dressed, not dressed to impress.

Strict rules

For a group of people who have rarely mixed face-to-face with unrelated members of the opposite sex, the atmosphere at the exhibition centre is very calm and refined. I would have expected to see more playground-style flirtation and teasing.

But these young Saudis do genuinely seem focused on the aid effort they have volunteered for. Although they are clearly enjoying spending time in the company of the opposite sex, they are doing so with reserve, the strict rules of their country clearly in the back of their minds.

This student generation has more access to members of the opposite sex than their parents did, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook. However, they are still wary.

The threat of the Mutawa is never far away, and they know that if any lines are crossed, at some point there will be severe consequences.