By Nael Shama, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, 01 March 2021

Spot analysis from Carnegie scholars on events relating to the Middle East and North Africa.


What Happened?


The audio-based network clubhouse, which currently runs on the Apple’s IOS operation system, has rapidly become the fastest-growing application in the world. Starting as a niche app for Silicon Valley insiders in March 2020, it has quickly morphed into a mainstream social networking platform. Today, Clubhouse has more than 10 million active users, up from 2 million in January 2021, 600,000 last December, and only 1,500 users in May 2020. As a result, the value of Clubhouse’s parent company, Alpha Exploration Co., has risen from $100 million in May 2020 to $1 billion in January 2021.

 

Why Is It important?


Clubhouse has not only gone viral in the United States, Europe, China, and Japan, but also in the Middle East, where hundreds of themed chat rooms have emerged, discussing a wide range of political, social, and cultural topics.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, Clubhouse has become the App Store’s most popular app in the social media category. Because it relies on an invite-only model, users in the kingdom are now offering to sell their invitations on Twitter, with prices ranging between the equivalent of $4 and $53. And in early February, student protesters in Turkey opposing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of a ruling party loyalist as rector of Boğaziçi University used Clubhouse to express their indignation. Clubhouse is quickly becoming a main tool of activism in the country, which for years has had a dismal record on free speech. The app has also been a hit in Egypt’s digital landscape, with some Egypt-themed rooms hosting up to 2,000 listeners.

A number of controversial topics, from politics and identity to religious beliefs and sexual orientation, have already been widely discussed in Arabic-language Clubhouse chat rooms. The fact that the app relies on verbal communication makes it more effective and intimate than other social media applications, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Moreover, by placing prominent influencers on an equal footing with users who have a smaller base of followers, Clubhouse has helped to democratize the debate, adding to its attractiveness. This development may have significant implications for the exercise of free speech, the status of mainstream media outlets, and state-society relations in general.


What Are the Implications for the Future?


In Middle Eastern societies where media outlets are censored, dissent is banned, and collective communication is absent or weak under authoritarian leaderships, Clubhouse will likely stimulate social communication, engender a flowering of debate over pressing issues, and therefore indirectly foster social bonds.

The Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper once distinguished between “closed societies” and “open societies.” The first are characterized by rigid, uniform top-down modes of thinking, while the second encourage free thinking, the open exchanges of ideas, and the flourishing of debate. Clubhouse enthusiasts in the Middle East hope the app will be a step toward the latter, breaking up social barriers and paving the way for more inclusion and pluralism. Critics of Clubhouse, on the other hand, fear that it might sow division and precipitate disorder. For them, the holy grail lies not in free speech, but in values such as the sanctity of religion, the supremacy of the state, and social uniformity.

Middle Eastern opposition figures, human rights activists, and intellectuals will undoubtedly try to use Clubhouse to advance their cause and augment their influence. Against this background, ruling establishments will eye Clubhouse with suspicion and unease, fearing it might be exploited by terrorist groups and opposition forces. Indeed, a pro-regime evening show host in Egypt has already warned against using the app, claiming he had uncovered a terrorist network doing so. That is why some states might aim to block Clubhouse, or at least slow it down, following in the footsteps of China, which blocked it in February.

As Clubhouse opens up to non-IOS users, which might take place this year, and new users flock in droves to the app, the way it is employed will become a main bone of contention between those favoring stability and those yearning for liberty.

 

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