Covid-19 may have cancelled many of life’s joys but the need for love is at its most pressing.
Just as the pandemic has forced most human interactions to move online, so has our quest to find that special someone, with worldwide revenues from the sector passing $3 billion in 2020.
The pandemic has seen huge growth in dating sites and apps based in the UK and Europe, particularly for those focused on Muslims, who were previously slow to embrace the changes brought by new technology.
Muzmatch, the world’s largest Muslim dating app, has gained 1 million new users in the previous six months alone, 35 per cent of them of Arab ethnicity.
It was founded in 2011 by British-Asian Shahzad Younas as a marriage website for Muslims, and the former algorithmic sales trader at Morgan Stanley quit his job in 2014 to develop the app full-time.
The app, which operates in 190 countries and 16 languages, now has 4 million users worldwide and 50 employees.
"We've gone like crazy on almost every metric," Mr Younas tells The National. "That's definitely accelerated from the date of lockdown purely because the need is there."
It is certainly what propelled Ayoub Meralli and Iman’s romance forward.
The couple, who live in London, matched on the app in July 2020. After Zoom calls with Iman’s parents, who live in Indonesia, and hastily arranged trips between lockdowns, they raced through relationship milestones and were married five months later on January 1, 2021.
“The biggest factor was coronavirus and the pandemic and the lockdown we were in, and the pressure from our parents and our families to settle down,” Ayoub says on Zoom with his wife.
“When I sat in that living room on my laptop, making my calls, the same questions on there: when you're getting married, when you're getting married?
"Why don't you marry someone from Yemen? Why don't you marry someone from Pakistan? Why don't you just get married?”
Ayoub says he was "terrified" he might have to resort to an arranged marriage.
Family pressure is often given by Muslims and Arabs as a factor in deciding to tie the knot.
Ayoub says the pandemic and personal tragedy – he lost two of his grandparents, to Covid-19 and a brain haemorrhage – adjusted his priorities.
“The pandemic helped to calm down our thinking and know what we want,” Ayoub says.
“As soon as we started speaking, I was like, ‘You know what, this is feeling really good right now. Let's give this a go and see what happens'.”
The abundance of free time and the pervasive spectre of death has focused people’s concerns, and love, as it often is, remains high on people’s priorities worldwide.
The surge in online dating quickly became apparent after the first lockdown in March 2020 and shows no sign of easing.
Match Group Inc, one of the largest providers of dating services globally, recently reported that the average number of subscribers on its apps increased by 12 per cent to 10.9 million in the last three months of 2020.
This came after steady quarter-on-quarter increases over the year.
The listed dating giant, which boasts a portfolio of more than 40 brands including Tinder, Match, Hinge and OKCupid, reported a 17 per cent rise in total revenue for the year to $2.4 billion.
With human interactions set to remain socially distanced for the foreseeable future as the UK and Europe continue to battle against Covid, it is a trend that will not let up.
After his company’s sharp upward swing, Mr Younas was quick to develop complementary features on the app, launching video and voice-calling features in May, with users racking up 30 years’ worth of time since.
“I think the Muslim market was behind the mainstream by about five years but [the pandemic] moved it forward by about three,” he said.
Societal taboos around online dating, coupled with the casual "hook-up" perception perpetuated by some mainstream apps, were part of the problem.
Ayoub, who is half-Yemeni and half-Pakistani, was a mostly dormant user of the app for about a year before he matched with his love. It was Iman’s first time on the app – any app, in fact.
They say they and their parents previously had reservations about the online dating world.
“I think they're pretty against it still. I think only recently my family have kind of got it,” Ayoub says.
“But with the times that we're living in, I think that's just like the only way it's possible to get to know someone.”
Sherif Omar, the founder of the BuzzArab dating app, says: “There are a lot of negative connotations around online dating. I mean, in Arabic you don't even use the word date."
Limits on physical meet-ups have helped to shift those conceptions.
Since lockdowns began in March, Egyptian Mr Omar's company has grown by more than 60 per cent and average daily use has increased by nearly 40 per cent.
“I really wanted to counter the stereotype of Arab dating sites as a place where people lie or go on for casual hook-ups," he says.
After establishing the site in 2009 in Egypt, Mr Omar left his full-time job at an online brokerage in 2012 with only 1,000 users and a mission to “create meaningful connections".
Exponential rise in Arab users drives dating app growth
Today the app has more than 400,000 active users, 120,000 of them who log in daily from all over the world. Most of the users are in Morocco, France, Algeria and Egypt.
The influx of people to Europe has aided growth in those markets. Germany is the app’s second-largest source of revenue.
Muzmatch has also had an exponential rise in the number of Arab users, more than doubling since March 2020. They were the second fastest growing member group after Turks.
Of the more than half a million users in the UK, 15 per cent identify as Arab, and in the US – the app’s second-largest market – the figure rises to a quarter.
In France, where almost 60 per cent of users identify as Arab, the number of Arab users grew by almost 200 per cent.
Meanwhile in Germany, where a quarter of users identify as Arabs, user numbers grew by 340 per cent.
Quality control and safety are key factors to encouraging use among the Muslim and Arab populations. Mr Younas and Mr Omar stress their diligence in these areas.
“Given our Muslim focus there's an emphasis on control," Mr Younas says.
"So both men and women can control who can call them at any time. And equally with things like image or video. We've got obscenity detection."
Mr Omar says from his home in Canada: “We have a great deal of control. And we filter very, very aggressively.
Educating users seems to be as big a concern to the founders as signing them up.
“Muslim people are almost thrown straight into marriage. You don't have that whole social education,” Mr Younas says.
For others, the online interactions are still virgin terrain.
“A lot of people go in and they register and they don't know what to expect," Mr Omar says.
"They see all these people, or suddenly they receive messages from all these people.
"And they ask themselves, ‘How do I know this person? Are they who they say they are? How do I get what I want out of this service?’”
He is building up an education centre to inform new joiners of the dos and don’ts of the online scene.
Muzmatch already does this through its blog, YouTube channel and Instagram channels, with posts from "success matches" and relationship experts in the community on a wide range of topics.
“The heart of what we try to do is get rid of bad behaviour and encourage good behaviour,” Mr Younas says.
“We're not about the casual relationship, we are trying to help find something serious.”
Having successfully matched 100,000 couples across its western markets, Muzmatch plans to direct its Cupid’s arrow eastwards across South-East Asia and the Middle East.
After successfully completing a $7 million Series A funding round in 2019, Mr Younas has big ambitions for his company.
“This is a massive market that was under-served, under-appreciated and misunderstood," he says.
"I'm convinced that we can be a Muslim-focused tech unicorn. We're on that trajectory."
While Mr Omar is not looking for investment, he is considering the scope for growth in the US, Canada and Australia, which are homes to large Arab communities.
“It has always been quality and not numbers," he says. "I really want it to be a place where you meet with someone with good intentions, whether you get married or not, just to have a positive experience.”
For Ayoub and Iman, their foray into online dating proved to be the most positive of experiences and they are looking forward to the future.
They plan to have their civil ceremony as soon as restrictions are lifted and hope to have celebrations in Pakistan and Indonesia when the world opens up again.
“We've been through the first lockdown getting to know each other, the second lockdown was engagement, the third lockdown was getting married," Ayoub says.
"It's a pretty unique story and by far one of the best decisions we ever made.”