Middle East finds outlets in clubhouses

Beirut (AP) — They are noisy, controversial, and sometimes quite cheerful.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the Arab world use Clubhouse, a fast-growing audio chat app, to mock long-time rulers, discuss delicate issues from abortion to sexual harassment, and the best and most We are discussing where to find cheap Shawarma sandwiches. During the economic crisis.

The debate is endless as they are out of breath.

Since its launch outside the United States in January, more than 970,000 people from the Middle East have downloaded the new platform. It has provided a space for direct conversation in an era when direct contact is tossed by a pandemic and connects people in the country with many in exile or abroad.

But in most cases, it provided a bottle of frustration relief in areas where violent conflicts and dictatorships had taken hold and there seemed to be few paths to change or to speak.

“This is an open coffee shop that sticks to what is banned by the region’s political system,” said Lebanese journalist Dianam Caled, who closely follows social platforms. “The clubhouse has brought people back to discussions with each other.”

The Middle East accounts for 6.1% of Clubhouse’s 15.9 million global downloads launched in the United States a year ago. Saudi Arabia is not ranked. According to Sensor Tower, a San Francisco-based mobile app analytics company, there are seven worldwide invitation-only downloads, over 660,000, right after Thailand and before Italy.

One of the reasons for its popularity seems to be the unruly atmosphere supported by the liveliness of group conversations.

Saudi Arabia has organized a room to discuss who can replace the old king on behalf of his ambitious son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They argued with the Egyptians about what they considered democracy, and with the Lebanese and Jordanians about recognizing that their kingdom was interfering with their affairs.

Other rooms work on taboo topics, from atheism to homosexuality. Saudi women discussed whether abortion should be allowed in the kingdom and urged enthusiastic back and forth.

The platform also became a place for information exchange, challenging the region’s predominantly state-dominated media.

Minutes after reports of an attempted coup d’etat in Jordan last week, Jordanians from inside and outside the country gathered in a room to share information about misleading reports released and managed by the government. The families of those arrested in subsequent sweeps shared their news. Some users defended King Abdullah, and supporters of the brothers and princes accused in the coup vowed to gather behind him.

Previously unimaginable discussions took place among parts of society that avoided or blocked each other on other social media.

Opponents discussed supporters of Lebanon’s strong Hezbollah group. Elsewhere, the Lebanese have opposed private banks because of their own economic collapse — there are bankers in their rooms.

In another room, Iraqis (mainly asylum seekers) criticized how many religious militias in their country affected their lives. A moderator, a woman in Najaf, a southern Shiite city currently living in Europe, talks about how a conservative family tried to shape her “like them” and sends her to a college where men and women meet. I opposed it. She fends off a man who suggested exaggerating and said she had never experienced what she had done.

Moderators went on to name powerful Shiite militias and religious leaders and see how they ignored the rules they had set for others. In free-flowing conversations, militia supporters were frequently interrupted, causing a torrent of taunts until they were forced to leave by moderators and others.

“They controlled the ground with their muscles,” the moderator said of the militia. “But social media needs a brain. This (space) is ours.”

In the hundreds of rooms discussing the war in Syria, some users decided to lighten their mood. Opposition activists organized a spoofing interview with someone disguised as President Bashar Assad.

Not only did it make me laugh, but it also brought me bitter memories of how the decade of conflict devastated the country. “I ran away from you, but you still take me to the clubhouse,” the exiled Syrian told the fake “Assad.”

However, there is growing concern that open spaces may be subject to the same government surveillance or censorship as other social media.

Ten years ago, Arab spring protesters flocked to Twitter and Facebook, which offer similar free space. Since then, authorities have targeted and arrested critics and used the site to spread their own publicity.

Oman is already blocking the Clubhouse app. In Jordan, it’s being hampered by certain mobile networks, but in the United Arab Emirates, it describes a bug that users can’t explain.

Pro-government commentators have opposed clubhouses on television shows and newspapers, accusing them of helping terrorists plan attacks, spreading pornography, and undermining religious and national figures.

First, the clubhouse brought together human rights defenders and political activists. Then came government supporters.

“This room has grown because the Salman people are here to protect him,” exclaimed a room participant featuring an opponent of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The debate over the release of imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activist Lujain al-Hasruhl led to a panicked mayhem when several participants threatened to expose attendees and report to authorities. The chat was cut off immediately.

Recordings have emerged online from clubhouse conversations that are considered offensive, including the acceptance of homosexuality, raising fears that pro-government Saudi users are watching critics. One participant asked to leave a chat between Lebanese when she turned out to be Israeli. This is because some users were afraid that they could be prosecuted under Lebanese law prohibiting mixing with Israelis.

Some people are afraid that the guards are secretly in the room.

Most participants in this app are for iPhone users only and may use their real name and enter a detailed biography. But more and more people are using fake names.

Without anonymity, clubhouse disagreements could turn into violence in real life, said Ali Sibai, a consultant at SMEX, a Beirut-based digital rights group Social Media Exchange. I am.

He said the clubhouse’s “vague” policy also raised concerns. According to the company, it temporarily stores conversations to investigate abuse. However, it does not say how long and who will review Arabic content, questioning whether unknown third parties may be involved and threatening the safety of participants. He said.

Moukalled, editor of independent online media Daraj, said it was not surprising that authorities would impose surveillance on Clubhouse.

But she said something else would come.

“Unless people feel part of the decision-making process, they will find these platforms.”


Associated Press writer Bassem Muroue of Beirut, Isabel Debre of Dubai, and Kelvin Chang of London contributed to this report.