They’re loud, argumentative, and at times downright hilarious. Hundreds of thousands of people across the Arab world are turning to Clubhouse, the fast growing audio chat app, to poke fun at longtime leaders, debate sensitive issues from abortion to sexual harassment, or wonder where to get the best and cheapest shawarma sandwich. during an economic crisis.
The discussions are endless because out of breath.
More than 970,000 people in the Middle East have downloaded the new platform since its launch outside the United States in January. It has offered a space for in-person conversations at a time when direct contact is at the mercy of the pandemic and it has brought together those at home and the many in exile or abroad.
Most importantly, he offered a release for the bottlenecked frustration in a region where violent conflict and autocrats have taken root and where few, if any, avenues for change seem tenable.
“It is an open cafe that pierces what is prohibited by the political regimes in the region,” said Diana Moukalled, a Lebanese journalist who closely follows social platforms. “Clubhouse made people start arguing about each other again.”
The Middle East accounts for 6.1% of the 15.9 million global downloads of Clubhouse, which launched in the United States a year ago. Saudi Arabia ranks 7th in the world for invite-only downloads, with more than 660,000, just behind Thailand and ahead of Italy, according to San Francisco-based mobile app analytics company Sensor Tower .
One of the reasons for its popularity seems to be the flawless atmosphere, fueled by the liveliness of group conversations.
The Saudis have set up rooms to discuss who could replace their aging king in place of his ambitious son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They argued with the Egyptians over what they saw as democracy and with the Lebanese and Jordanians over their kingdom’s perceived interference in their affairs.
Other rooms deal with taboo subjects ranging from atheism to homosexuality. A Saudi woman discussed whether abortions should be allowed in the kingdom, prompting a passionate back-and-forth.
The platform has also become a place for information exchange, challenging the largely state-dominated media in the region.
Minutes after reports of an attempted coup in Jordan last week, Jordanians inside and outside the country gathered in a room to share information on the muddled reports released. and controlled by the government. Families of those arrested in the ensuing sweep shared their news. Some users have defended King Abdullah while supporters of the brother prince accused of the coup have vowed to rally behind him.
Previously unimaginable debates have taken place between parts of society that would otherwise avoid or block each other on other social media.
Opponents debated supporters of the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah group. Elsewhere, the Lebanese have denounced the private banks they blame for their country’s economic crisis – with bankers in the room.
In another room, Iraqis – mostly exiles – criticized the impact of their country’s many religious militias on their lives. The moderator, a woman from the southern Shia town of Najaf now living in Europe, recounted how her conservative family tried to mold her to “be like them” and opposed sending her to universities where men and women mix. She pushed away a man who suggested she was exaggerating, telling him he hadn’t experienced what she had done.
The moderator went on to quote figures from powerful Shiite militias and religious leaders, saying she saw how they flouted the rules they set for others. In the fluent conversation, militia supporters frequently interrupted, unleashing a torrent of profanity from the moderator and others until they were forced to leave.
“They controlled the ground with their muscles,” the moderator said of the militias. “But social networks need brains. This (space) is ours. “
Among the hundreds of rooms dealing with the war in Syria, some users have decided to lighten the mood. Opposition activists staged a parody of an interview with someone posing as President Bashar Assad.
It drew laughs, but also poignant reminders of how the 10-year conflict devastated the country. “I ran away from you and you still follow me at the Clubhouse,” an exiled Syrian told the bogus “Assad”.
But concerns are growing that the open space could quickly come under the same government surveillance or censorship as other social media.
Ten years ago, activists for the Arab Spring protests flocked to Twitter and Facebook, which offered similar open space. Since then, authorities have come to use the sites to target and stop criticism and spread their own propaganda.
Oman has already blocked the Clubhouse app. In Jordan, it is obstructed on some mobile networks, while in UAE, users have described inexplicable problems.
Pro-government commentators have denounced Clubhouse on TV shows and newspapers, accusing it of helping terrorists plan attacks, spreading pornography, or undermining religious and state figures.
First, Clubhouse has attracted advocates and political activists. Then came government support.
“This room has grown because the people of Salman are there to defend it,” shouted a participant in a room featuring opponents of the Saudi Crown Prince.
A discussion about the release of jailed Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul turned into panicked chaos when a few attendees threatened to expose attendees and report them to authorities. The cat soon broke off.
Recordings have surfaced online of Clubhouse conversations deemed offensive, such as homosexuality becoming acceptable, fueling fears that pro-government Saudi users are keeping an eye out for critics. One participant asked to leave a Lebanese chat when it was discovered that she was Israeli, in part because some users feared prosecution under Lebanese laws prohibiting mixing with Israelis.
Some fear that security guards are secretly in the rooms.
Most of the participants in the app, which remains exclusive to iPhone users, use real names and sometimes include detailed biographies. But a growing number are using false names.
Without anonymity, the Clubhouse’s disagreements could turn into real-life violence, said Ali Sibai, consultant with Beirut-based social media exchange digital rights group, SMEX.
Clubhouse’s “vague” policies also raise concerns, he said. The company says it is temporarily storing the conversations to investigate abuse. But that doesn’t say for how long or who reviews the Arabic content, which begs the question of whether unknown third parties may be involved, endangering the safety of participants, he said.
Moukalled, editor-in-chief of Daraj, an independent online media outlet, said it would not be surprising if authorities imposed surveillance on Clubhouse.
But, she said, something else would happen.
“As long as people don’t feel like they are part of the decision-making process, they will find these platforms.”