RIYADH — A month ago, the up-and-coming app Clubhouse took the Middle East by storm. In just a few days, the latest gem from Silicon Valley had already earned its place in the crowded market of Arab social networks. Since this audio chat platform only runs on iOS for the moment, its use is restricted to iPhone owners, i.e. the relatively wealthy classes.

But in these circles, especially in Egypt and among the ultra-connected youth of the wealthy Gulf States, followers for this new app started to grow rapidly. By mid-February, Clubhouse was the most downloaded social media app in the Saudi Arabian App Store.

In France, this discussion forum still has a very strong "tech" image, which means that many digital professionals use it. But in the Middle East, its followers come from a much wider range of backgrounds.

It's for a simple reason: in these countries where social pressure and official censorship stifle dissenting voices and non-conforming opinions, Clubhouse provides a unique breathing space. In these virtual rooms, where anyone can initiate a discussion on a topic of their choice, or join an ongoing conversation, Arabs are rediscovering a taste for free speech.

Most of the topics discussed on the network are not controversial. Members talk about psychology, music, travel, cooking, start-ups, literature, etc. They talk about everything and nothing, in anything from a gossipy to academic manner.

"In the last few days, I listened to a discussion with people from the Gulf, who were talking about the person who has impacted them the most in their lives; there were 400 participants," says a foreign resident of the United Arab Emirates. "And I also followed a debate on Aristotle that was high-brow, with only 10 people."

But of course, a big part of Clubhouse's appeal in the Arab world is the opportunity to discuss all the subjects that are banned from the pages of newspapers, radio stations and television studios. As the powers that be have not yet found a way to lock down this new network, the three great taboos of the region (sex, politics and religion) are openly discussed.

For example, the highly sensitive issue of normalization with Israel — a step that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco took in 2020 — is often discussed.

The three great taboos of the region are openly discussed.

"I attended a conversation on this topic with several hundred people from the Gulf," says Dima Khatib, a Palestinian journalist for Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar. "All of them were against the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, except for one dissenting voice. This shows that the pro-normalization climate fostered on Twitter does not correspond to reality."

In a group called "I am queer and I am Arab" held last week, participants came out in public, a statement that is often difficult to make even in Western countries and that the conservatism of Arab societies renders more complicated.

The Egyptian Clubhouse is filled with many exiles, often members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood (Islamist movement banned on the banks of the Nile), who do not hesitate to criticize President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

Another explosive topic discussed in another virtual room with Saudis and Emiratis is the stranglehold of the Gulf regimes on the Friday sermon. The text is provided ready-made to the imams of the mosques, for the great weekly prayer, with a ban on deviating from it.

By mid-February, Clubhouse was the most downloaded social media app in the Saudi Arabian App Store — Photo: Erin Kwon

"We are not farm animals who only eat and drink. It is our right to think and to form opposition as in any other country," says a Saudi woman in a conversation about the lack of civil rights in the kingdom.

"It's simple: There is a freedom of expression on Clubhouse that doesn't exist anywhere else," says Khatib.

But for how much longer? In a sign that the application scares autocrats, the Sultanate of Oman announced on Sunday that the country had blocked Clubhouse, following the footsteps of China, who blocked it in February. In the Emirates, discussions have not been accessible for several days, which is interpreted locally as an act of censorship without saying so openly. Fans of the platform can bypass the jamming with a VPN, but in doing so, they risk breaking the law: The use of such software is strictly codified in the UAE.

In Egypt, the government has started to interfere in Clubhouse. One of the most followed chat rooms in the country, "Open Mic Egypt," with tens of thousands of subscribers and initially devoted to personal development issues, now sees ministers and pro-Sisi deputies parade around.

"The room is being transformed into a state radio; the moderators receive instructions from the government," says an Egyptian journalist, on the condition of anonymity. The "fake news" machine has also been set in motion. Ahmed Moussa, a talk-show host famous for his connections with the intelligence services, claimed to have uncovered a "terrorist" network within the site.

Speakers threatened to report the participants to the authorities.

In Saudi Arabia, the authorities seem to want to repeat the way they handled Twitter with Clubhouse: saturate the network with trolls and informants to sow fear among users and ultimately rid the exchanges of any subversive element. This is what happened to a discussion on racism in Arabia, organized by Amani Al-Ahmadi, an exiled opponent of the regime in the United States. No sooner had it started than Twitter was flooded with screenshots and videos revealing the identity and thinking of the participants.

Another debate on Loujain Al-Hathloul, the feminist activist recently released from prison, ended similarly after speakers threatened to report the participants to the authorities.

"In the absence of any organization or ethical constraints, the acrimony these discussions can generate could harm society," says Salman Al-Dossary, a columnist for the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. For the Arab regimes, Clubhouse is a parenthesis that must be closed soon.

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