In a region where freedom of expression is far from eminence, Clubhouse is making huge strikes. The new platform is at the top of the list of most downloaded apps in many Arab countries. “People are dying to be able to speak frankly,” says Ayman Mhanna, director of the Samir Kassir foundation in Beirut. “We live in a region where censorship is the norm and freedom of expression is an exception.”
Clubhouse is particularly popular in the Gulf States, Egypt and Iraq. The talks are about everyday things like shawarma and pets, but there are also frank debates on controversial topics such as feminism, sex, polygamy, politics and other taboo topics.
Clubhouse has now been banned in Oman and Jordan; in other countries politicians participate in order to be part of it.
Users are encouraged to use their real name and post a profile photo of themselves. The spontaneous discussions in chat rooms are moderated by a host and often feel intimate. Participants – sometimes dozens, sometimes thousands – can listen or talk. Clubhouse is all about the spoken word in an atmosphere that feels confidential. But is that safe feeling appearances?
“ The questionable security and privacy settings are certainly a concern,” says Mhanna. “People who speak freely are at risk of being identified.” His foundation is fighting for greater freedom of expression in the region. “Remember, this is still the worst region in the world when it comes to freedom of expression.”
Egyptian state television recently claimed that Clubhouse is a place where ‘terrorist cells’ operate. Since it is only accessible to people with an iPhone and not every Egyptian who can pay, it is a select group of users.
Dancer and choreographer Hazem Header felt so far especially free while dancing. But ever since he was at Clubhouse, he‘s met a lot of people with the same mindset.
Clubhouse gives him a chance to breathe and talk freely, he says:
In Saudi Arabia, almost everyone has an iPhone and Clubhouse is the most popular app in the store. “For the first few weeks I spent at Clubhouse at least five hours a day,” explains Basma El Khereiji from Jeddah. She has over 6,000 followers. “I wanted to know everything about this new platform. It was refreshing because it’s so spontaneous.”
It‘s a way for the young businesswoman to meet new people. “In this society it is not customary to talk to strangers for a good conversation. Now you can exchange your thoughts freely and openly.”
Only if you get an invitation from someone who is already a member, you can sign up. That feeling of exclusivity appeals to many people. When Ahmed Al Mujadadi was bored during yet another Saudi coronalockdown, he decided to accept an invitation. In no time, he was addicted. “One day, when I was at Clubhouse for 12 hours, I thought maybe I have a problem. But there were so many interesting conversations. I love podcasts and this is a kind of interactive podcast you can participate in.”
The confrontational element seemed interesting to him. “My friends and I all think the same. Clubhouse gives the opportunity to exchange views with all kinds of people.”
‘Beceded more cautive‘
He does notice that people were more open in the beginning than they are now. “The Internet remains the Internet. I often hear that someone with a controversial opinion finds an audio recording of their story later on Twitter. People have become more cautious as a result.”
There are often debates about what it means to be a Saudi. “Conversations about identity, culture, the generation gap. There are chat rooms that are about religion and politics. Maybe these are taboo topics, but people talk about them easily and openly without causing any problems.”
Whether that will continue to be the same is still the question. Mhanna in Beirut, Lebanese says: “There is certainly the risk of people crossing red lines, possibly leading to legal action. If that happens, we will have to have a serious conversation with Clubhouse about the safety settings.”
He’s less worried about banning Clubhouse by governments. “Even then, people will always find a way to circumvent it and yet participate.”