When the Arab uprisings began 10 years ago, social media played a key role in providing a platform for individuals to broadcast and spread news of protests straight from the source. At that time, Facebook and Twitter were the two most popular mediums where discussions on democracy and civil rights flourished. Twitter was even talked about as a substitute for “parliament,” especially for residents of the Gulf states. Social media soon became subject to strict policing, through blocking access, imposing new laws to deter information sharing, or reshaping debates. The latter has been increasingly done through automated accounts or real individuals working for the state to control trending algorithms and promote those more in line with their governments’ views. Nonetheless, social media continues to be an important arena in the Gulf in the absence of other means for debate and open discussion, with Clubhouse the latest addition to the scene.
Clubhouse is a new audio-only social app that so far remains exclusive and by invitation only. Unlike Twitter, where people can spend more time drafting a single tweet, Clubhouse’s audio format does not allow participants to edit or delete their discussions. This has allowed for more spontaneous and less constraining exchanges for deeper and more frank debates. This explains why Clubhouse is quickly emerging as an alternative to Twitter. So far, the main takeaway from joining numerous Clubhouse “rooms” is that people are contesting views and participating in daily discussions in a more casual and less cautious manner, as opposed to Twitter, which remains closely monitored.
The kind of debates on Clubhouse highlight the long-term challenges of controlling social media. For example, feminism has been subject to severe demonization on Twitter in response to Saudi women’s demands for more rights and after incidents of women fleeing the country. Clubhouse has become a platform for feminists from around the Arab world to discuss their views and reflect on how and why their governments have used social media to suppress the movement. Since Clubhouse functions through rooms created by moderators who can remove anyone disturbing a discussion, it is practically impossible to hijack a conversation. Instead, individuals who want to promote their government’s narrative create their own rooms to refute these discussions. Such efforts remain marginal, however, since hashtags and bots that can disturb algorithms are not relevant on the new app. This has allowed discussions to remain focused among a serious group of participants.
Clubhouse discussions have also focused on sensitive issues such as political reforms, in general terms and related to challenges facing specific Gulf states. For example, a discussion on “political reforms in the Gulf – a necessity or a luxury,” contested long-held views, particularly related to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. One of these views is the assumption that Gulf citizens are content with their governments for providing them adequate services in exchange for limited political participation and freedom of expression. On the other hand, those critical of the debate on political reforms often invoke the crises in Libya and Syria to illustrate their counterargument. They also criticize Gulf opposition figures who reside abroad, saying they are out of touch with developments on the ground, arguing for example that the Iraqi opposition discourse prior to 2003 encouraged the U.S. war in Iraq, contributing to ongoing regional turmoil. The increasing phenomenon of labeling those who stir political debate as “traitors” has also been challenged.
The various political discussions, especially those concerning the Gulf, are bringing in diverse views to debate long-held assumptions. Such discussions have disappeared from Twitter over the past few years. Moreover, the Clubhouse trend took off after the Gulf reconciliation with Qatar, which has proved a timely coincidence as it has allowed for more relaxed and inclusive debates among a wide section of Gulf citizens. This timing has also prompted discussions on the reconciliation agreement itself and the consequences of this development on the future of the region.
Debate on the new platform has also dealt with issues pertaining to identity, religion, and regionalism. This has especially been the case with regard to recent social changes in Saudi Arabia. The public decency law, which has restricted the religious establishment’s power in policing the social scene, has been part of these discussions in the context of religious identity versus increasing nationalism. Discussions on regionalism in Saudi Arabia have also delved into sensitive issues, such as examining the centrality of Riyadh and future plans for the capital area. A particularly interesting discussion focused on the perception of “Najdi privilege” – the idea that people from the central region are favored in recruitment and other opportunities.
Clubhouse is providing a much-needed space for contesting views and continuing debates that have been suspended for years in the Gulf. Moreover, the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic are allowing many individuals to spend endless hours on the app, which is contributing to a collective awareness and nascent narrative on a number of issues that are being discussed repeatedly. While Facebook and Twitter are trying to provide similar functions to compete, the small niche and exclusivity of Clubhouse today are what is making many residents of the Gulf flock to the new app to enjoy the expansive margin of freedom before it potentially gets regulated like its predecessors. This trend reaffirms the centrality of social media to the lives of many Gulf citizens and the desire for more frank and spontaneous debate in the absence of any real alternatives for sociopolitical discussions.