I don't know exactly when it happened, but its here. It may have been months ago or years ago, I just learned about the trend last year myself and was considering it as a means to travel on the cheap when on annual vacations or in new places. When I registered on the site, I though for sure I'd have to use a VPN and or my home address in the states. I couldn't believe it when I realized that that I could sign up in Saudi, I further couldn't believe it when saw there were a lot of people in Saudi offering couches. Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Khobar, Dhrahan, but I was absolutely blown way when I discovered that there were women on the site. Not just Western women either, but Asian, Persian and even Arab.
For those not familiar, "Couch Surfing" or CS is a fairly recent phenomenon that involves creating a profile, getting verified and offering up a couch to travelers. Users on the site search places they intend to be traveling and look for hosts that match their needs and personalities. They then send a "couch request" specifying when and for how long they'd like to stay. If the host feels that there is a good potential that the two will get along, at least for the weekend, he or she responds.
CS is often defined as a project or a movement. The idea being that some people want to travel not only on the cheap, but actually get to experience the local culture, cuisine and people. I wholeheartedly agree. For examples sake if someone from Saudi was visiting the US for a few weeks, they would learn a great deal more about it from me or some of my countrymen than they would if they were hidden away in a hotel. At a hotel they would eat steaks and chicken and burgers, maybe taste a glass of wine or three. With me they would eat real BBQ (beef) courtesy of a friend who owns a BBQ place and does competitions, they would eat fried ravioli St. Louis style and have homemade biscuits and gravy with their eggs in the morning (or they would have until the divorce). At others houses they might be invited to a Friday night football game, catch a live local concert, have a bonfire on the beach. Tour a local winery or micro brew and have some alcohol actually WORTH drinking. Nowhere would they be stuck listening to elevator music and flipping channels on the TV remote unless they wanted to. This is the idea behind couch surfing, finding some kindred spirits in other travelers out there and really experiencing the world around you. I love it!
There have however been some negative reports about CS, and some of them potentially pertain to Saudi Arabia more so than other places. There have been reports that some out there use it simply as a dating site, that they screen the requests not for personality, but rather for looks. Its easy enough I guess, say on your profile that you've traveled Europe and are now open to hosting Europeans traveling the US. Host a guy once or twice a month, and get some good reviews and eventually the requests from women will come in. If that's what you were after, you've succeeded. You now have dates coming directly to you. Using CS as a dating website is scummy, but as long as all parties are consenting adults, I don't really see the harm in it. Its a little slimy, maybe even scummy, but these things happen, as long as you know how not to come on like an asshole, I say no harm, no foul. We are human animals after all. This is where things get tricky though...what if you're a little overbearing and you've promised someone a couch, you meet them shake hands, get along well. Then you take them out for the evening, show them around and have some fun. Once home, you come on a little too strong and they rebuke you. Now the uncomfortableness sets in...and its almost really too late for the person whose in a strange place to find somewhere else to go. Now you've crossed the line from a little slimy to out and out asshole and predator.
In Saudi there is an additional problem, number one its illegal for single men and single women to be in each others company here. In fact outside of work (and sometimes at work too) it is illegal to be with someone of the opposite gender unless you're married. Generally, the CPVPV (Religious Police) will leave Westerners alone, but not always. They've yelled at me before, never anything serious but sitting too close to a family, waiting for stores to open during prayer, looking at them etc...and there has been more than one occasion of people being dragged off to jail for not being able to prove marriage.
Secondly though, rape is often times unreported in Saudi because the woman will be in trouble also! The courts will say that if she were at home with her parents, this wouldn't have happened. In a prehistoric caveman sense--they're right. But hiding women under tons of wrappings and leaving them at home to sit on the couch, watch TV and get fat until they get married is borderline abuse of human rights. I know its a different culture and all, but c'mon people! Getting back to the point though, women, expat or GCC citizens who decide to allow a male traveler to couch surf, risk rape or abuse at the hands of their "guest" and have little recourse in the legal system. Even a woman who fights an attacker off and throws him out of her house cannot dare to call the police, not here in Saudi. And yet, they're on there. Brave souls, trusting in the goodness of their fellow humans.
I plan on couch surfing to Jeddah, I need to do some diving and I'm hoping to go in the next month or two before its cold. At first I thought I was going to get stuck doing the hotel thing, but we'll see if I can't catch a couch or two. I'll let you know how it goes.