Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Clubhouse — a double-edged tool in the Middle East

Clubhouse App
A picture taken March 6, 2021 to a Saudi woman checking the Clubhouse App on her phone in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Photo: Fayez Nureldine / AFP

By: Sophia Akram

The soaring popularity of iPhone app Clubhouse has not escaped the Middle East and North Africa, creating defining moments and avenues for opportunities for people in the region, even though the threat of state interference is not too far in the distance.

The audio-only app has fast become a globally popular networking tool, encapsulating a cross between podcast, Houseparty and live phone-in where users can start rooms on any topic and those in the room can chime in with their views. To keep things orderly there’s a moderator and hand-raising facility.

There’s no recording of the discussion on the app and rooms disappear once they’ve been closed. Some discussions have been known to last days and as an invite-only app, the exclusivity factor gives it more appeal.

Its stock rocketed after Elon Musk’s debut on the platform and from 1,500 active users in May 2020, encompassing Silicon Valley’s tech innovators, VC executives and Hollywood celebrities, its base has grown to 2 million users and is worth $1 billion.

Across the Middle East, people are flocking to participate in rooms covering all-manner of topics, including entrepreneurship, culture and politics.

It was allegedly the most popular app in the App’s store’s social media category in Saudi Arabia, and invitations have been apparently going for sale in Iran.

Just as other social media sites like Twitter can show real-time reactions to political moments, Clubhouse has proven to be a powerful window into different points of view in the region.

In early February 2021, for instance, student protesters shared their disappointment of a new loyalist appointment by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s to one of the most prestigious universities in Turkey.

Discussions have revolved around boycott, divestments and sanctions in Israel and identity issues such as sexual orientation.

It’s the “democratisation of debate” placing influencers and others with a smaller following on an equal footing that sets the app apart from other social media, writes Nael Shama at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “This development may have significant implications for the exercise of free speech, the status of mainstream media outlets, and state-society relations in general”, she said.

This uncensored space has clear positive connotations for progressing debate in more challenging environments beyond Facebook or Twitter where Eman Alhussein, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington says feminism is demonised. Clubhouse, on the other hand allows feminists in the Arabic-speaking world “to discuss their views and reflect on how and why their governments have used social media to suppress the movement”, she writes.

Discussions are also now punctuated with diversity of opinion challenging traditional narratives while allowing cross-border dialogue to flourish among Arab citizens who share cultural and linguistic traits.

There is, however, the sense that open expression on the app may be short-lived.

Some say it is only a matter of time before the state starts using the app for surveillance or control or block its use, with rumination the UAE and Iraq have been considering such a move.

China, regularly censured over lack of free speech, has already banned its use after a brief period of uncensored conversation. Those who had access to a foreign-registered iPhone could use the app temporarily to share their views on controversial topics such as the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and the treatment of Uighurs.

The more immediate challenge is censoring or policing of conversations among the users themselves. One witnessed discussion on legalising alcohol, supposedly ended in someone posting a video recording of the discussion on Twitter. As the app’s use grows and it becomes difficult to take stock of who is present in the rooms, there could be an urge to self-censor more.

Analyst Timothy E. Kaldas also urged caution to Egyptian Clubhouse members pointing to a pro-regime talk show where the host claimed they had “penetrated” and recorded a discussion with Muslim Brotherhood members and others abroad, threatening to release the recording, which Kaldas says was probably a warning the state is watching.

Between these narratives of good and bad, however, there is also the feeling more nuance is needed around Clubhouse’s power and utility.

“There’s this binary conversation around Clubhouse and other social media tools and their impact on the MENA. This conversation seems to only entertain two extremes – either these tools are emancipatory or they’re a nothingburger. I’m finding this extremely annoying”, wrote İyad el-Baghdadi, president of Kawaakibi Foundation, on Twitter.

“When we say these tools are an opportunity, we’re told we’re “romanticizing” them (wtf?) and if we say the regimes will always find ways to fight free expression we’re told we’re giving up. I honestly want to understand where this lazy mode of thinking comes from”, he continued.

“Tools are opportunities, not saviors. We don’t need to be reminded of the brutality of our regimes or the failure of the world to stand up to them. We also don’t need to be lectured about the resilience of our people and their pent up need to express themselves freely”.

Clubhouse is not the only tool to harness audio space to engage audiences in MENA. The Chinese owned voice-only app Yalla has gained popularity in the Middle East and North Africa.

WOLF – The World’s Online Festival – has also tapped into audio network functionality to showcase performers in the Middle East, which Clubhouse also does. In the current pandemic-stricken world forcing less in-person interaction, it is no surprise such apps are thriving.

“The reality of life right now is that it will necessitate a significant medium-term change of lifestyles, all around the world”, says Gary Knight, WOLF’s CEO, who says the app offers a second world for people to “hang out”.

“The entertainment brings people in, they then stay to chat and connect”, he says.

With much discussion around political and social implications of Clubhouse, however, the fact is many MENA members are drawn to its potential for collaboration and networking.

“I often find myself in rooms where Co-Founders of CH, Netflix, and other big outlets discuss their ideas and entrepreneurial journey”, said Asmaa A. Hameed, a Kuwait-based author, public speaker and social media strategist, speaking to Fanack, describing how she uses Clubhouse to connect with local influencers, speakers and entrepreneurs around the Middle East.

“I love how people across the world are readily helping one another whether by giving them tips, strategies or sharing their stories and listening to the input of their audiences”, explained Hameed.

“Kerim, the Turkish founder of Modanisa is open to collaborating and promoting the modest fashion industry for females. Ade, a Senior Software Engineer at Netflix shared how he had to go against his family’s typical expectation of him turning into a doctor and taking up this career path.

“Kuwait influencers like Ali al Sanad share their political, philosophical and academic outlook on a variety of topics, and Mohammed al Nughaimish opens brilliant discussions on productivity, lifestyle, leadership and management where audiences participate and share their tips, opinions in 30 seconds up to a minute”, she said.

Walid AO (@Waleeo0), a Germany-based engineering project manager, also manages the platform and @Arabicindiecom on Instagram, which facilitate the promotion and support for indie Arabic artists. Clubhouse helps him promote Arabic content online and network with others with the same goal, he tells Fanack, its distinct advantage being higher engagement than other social media platforms because response time is immediate.

Those you meet are usually “people of vision”, he says. And without having their comments necessarily on the record, Walid says people have been more open about personal experiences.

“I’ve heard so many life-defining moments on the App”, he tells Fanack, “it is clearly the best platform for such open-hearted talks”.

While state interference is a looming threat, says Walid, Hameed points to the trajectory of the Clubhouse app itself as her concern:

“I still don’t know how this app will be turning the data on it into a commercial stipend for itself, and whether they will surprise us one day out of nowhere with marketing and ads like Facebook”.

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