A New Outlet for GCC Nationals... Clubhouse Shakes the Region

Tuesday 20 April 202107:17 pm
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متنفّس الخليجيين الجديد... معارضون وموالون للسلطات يتبارون في غرف "كلوب هاوس"

Gulf citizens flocked to “Clubhouse” in droves. Within a short time, the (chat) rooms that were being shared or managed by the citizens of the Gulf had grown to large numbers. The rooms also became quite diversified, with some political and human rights-oriented in nature, while others being religious and cultural in nature, in addition to a space for rooms meant for recreation and entertainment mainly.

The application has become a new space for self-expression as well as for the public affairs that are disregarded and ignored by the local press, due to the lack of an atmosphere for freedom in Gulf countries.

“Clubhouse” is a social media app for audio discussions that only iOS users can use. It depends on auditory communication through hosting virtual rooms that can accommodate groups of up to 5,000 people, for live discussions on a specific topic or a number of subjects.

Opportunity for Dialogue

“What distinguishes this application from other platforms isn’t through the margin it provides for freedom of expression — this margin is also available on other applications and platforms. Rather, it is through enabling its users to engage in live and direct dialogue, as well as in debate and arguments regarding the issues being raised, and also in the art of handling differences.”

This is what Omani writer and journalist Dr. Mohamed Alyahyai, says on the matter. Commenting to Raseef22 on the massive Gulf demand for “Clubhouse”, he adds, “In Arab societies in general — and in Gulf societies in particular — we have not tested our ability to manage or handle differences calmly and deliberately, nor our ability to listen to different opinions without personalization and agitation.”

In his opinion, there are many reasons for this reality diagnosed on his part. “In the first place, it isn’t due to the individual tendency to exclusivity in opinion and the confiscation of a different opinion — even though this tendency is one of the features of authoritarian regimes and the closed sectarian culture that they produce. It is rather due to the absence of the space, places, or platforms that give people the right to engage in dialogue, in debate, and in disagreement — publicly and face to face.”

His opinion is shared by Bahraini journalist and the head of the Bahrain Press Association, Adel Marzouq, who says to Raseef22, “The citizens of the Gulf initiate and interact with every new social platform that allows them to express their opinion and voice their political positions — or even positions that deal with public and service-based affairs — because they are prohibited from participating in the classic press channels through which the voice of authorities and the praise of their policies can only be heard.”

Social media gave the people of the Gulf the opportunity to communicate with the world and express themselves. It became a place for political organization, literary debates, and demands for human rights, until the authorities began to monitor these tools and hold people accountable for their opinions, criticisms, and objections on cyberspace.

Marzouq says, “For a period of time, social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — were open spaces, until the state began crowding it with millions of fake online accounts or ‘electronic flies’ (a term used by activists to describe troll-like accounts pumping out pro-government or pro-establishment messages) and through a set of laws and punitive measures for every opinion that was not in line with what is propagated by the official media and the government's policies — both internal and external.”

However, some activists have other opinions about the extent to which this new platform provides freedom. “Al-Nour”, a Kuwaiti LGBTQ rights activist, says that the space for freedoms on Twitter is much more open. She adds to Raseef22, “A person owns that space and is free in terms of how to express himself and when. Whereas on ‘Clubhouse’, the space depends more on the moderators of the room and those who choose the subject, because everyone is obligated with a certain timing. Also, most rooms have conditions made by the founders of the room that must not be overstepped.”

Between the two views, there is a third opinion held by Emirati activist and human rights defender Hamad Al-Shamsi. He tells Raseef22 that the space of freedom granted by “Clubhouse” is the same as that provided by Twitter, “But the difference is that 'Clubhouse' gives the opportunity for two-way communication with the audience as well as direct dialogue, and not just receiving, as is the case on Twitter.”

A New Space for Discussion

With the absence of opportunities for the public in the Gulf to discuss matters related to their lives directly and first-hand — whether through the civil society or the political parties — social media platforms are filling this gap.

Bahraini social activist Sabeeka al-Shamlan tells Raseef22, “Clubhouse has allowed for in-depth discussions on complex issues, especially since it spread during a time when face-to-face gatherings had been significantly reduced (due to the Coronavirus pandemic) and attendance on virtual spaces were on the rise. What distinguished the app was how it brought together people with different opinions and points of view, who wouldn’t have been able to meet in reality or engage in honest and bold discussions otherwise.”

By listening to discussions in some Clubhouse rooms in Kuwait, we see that the margin of freedom of thought and expression, and even political and social freedoms in this country, is much greater than it is thought to be

She goes on to say, “The application has embraced various topics related to the political, social, and spiritual concerns of the Arab individual, in addition to the challenges that youth face and are interested in learning more about, such as mental illnesses, issues of social inclusion, feminism, and the challenges facing the average Arab woman.”

She points out that what caught her attention were “the numerous cultural rooms and their diversity, the spaces that discussed issues of normalization, as well as the rooms that brought together citizens of the Gulf and Palestinians, discussed common concerns, and presented different political views.”

Al-Shamlan sees “Clubhouse” as a suitable place to discuss all matters related to the social challenges that women of the Gulf face. She says, “I see this space as an appropriate place for discussion with different groups from society that may not agree with the demands of feminism or the feminist movement in the Gulf. They may even begin to get to know them more and understand them better.”

The topics raised through the new platform are diverse. Kuwaiti activist “al-Nour” indicated that the people of the Gulf are raising controversial issues on “Clubhouse” such as homosexuality, gender transitions, and political issues generally.

The behavior of the people of the Gulf on the application caught the attention of Alyahyai. He says, “I entered a number of chat and discussion rooms that were set up by app users in Oman — before the application was blocked — and in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. In everything that I had heard or listened to, I found nothing but a high level of moral responsibility, discipline, and a respectful desire for knowledge, debate, and argumentation.”

Many things had also caught his attention. “By listening to the discussions in some of the rooms in Kuwait, we see that the margin of freedom of thought and expression, and even political and social freedoms, in this country is much greater than it is thought to be.”

He adds, “I can say with great confidence that ‘Clubhouse’ presented me with an image that I had not known about Saudi Arabia. Through some of the chat rooms, the issues raised, and through some deep and serious debates, it can be said that this country is experiencing something resembling a cultural revolution, and that a new Saudi generation in the coming years, will change not just the face of Saudi Arabia, but the face of the region.”

Through some chat rooms, the issues raised, and the deep and serious debate, it can be said Saudi Arabia is undergoing something of a cultural revolution, a new generation won’t change the face of Saudi Arabia in coming years, it will change the face of the region

Based on observations he had collected, al-Shamsi can distinguish between the different interests and concerns of the various peoples of the Gulf states, believing that it is not possible to place all the peoples of the Gulf within the same mold. He clarifies, “Kuwaiti people, for example, tend to bring up political issues and interact with varying political events under a massive public turnout. This is a direct result of the high ceiling of freedoms in Kuwait that is protected by the constitution. As for the Emirati and Saudi aspects, since political discourse is forbidden within these two countries, people tend to raise social issues. We can even see that certain figures affiliated with the state authority manage rooms that demonize political claimants and their demands.”

He points out that “Clubhouse” has elevated the ceiling of the issues being raised, “It is clear that the issues that are being raised have crossed many of the red lines set by the authority, such as reforming the political system and demands for a constitutional monarchy. These demands, however, are only exclusively led by the external opposition, due to the fact that political discourse from within these countries is criminalized by law, and the users and the tweeters of these platforms are pursued by law if they have opinions or views that support and call for change.”

Surveillance and Oversight by Authorities

On the 14th of March, “Clubhouse” users in Oman were surprised by their inability to access the platform. Before long, Omani authorities announced that they had blocked it “because it had not acquired the appropriate licensing,” — something that angered many.

Alyahyai states, “The platform being blocked is unfortunate, for it not only shows the limitedness of the different opinions within large sectors of society — especially the youth — but it also deprives authorities from direct and daily knowledge of people’s concerns and questions, and even from the opportunity of having dialogue with them.” On the other hand, he pointed to the participation of prominent figures in some of the discussions — such as Prince Al Waleed bin Talal in Saudi Arabia, as well as the presence of the Kuwaiti Minister of Information with her own account on the platform.

According to al-Shamsi, “The authorities are trying to limit available freedoms, either by enacting laws that criminalize any form of discourse beyond the red lines that they specify, or through interference — as is the case in the Emirates, where many users complained of interference and scrambling, or through banning as was what had happened in Oman.”

These restrictions are causing many Gulf citizens to lose their sense of security. However, “al-Nour” sees that the issue of Gulf citizens’ sense of safety is a “relative matter”. She comments, “There are those who are afraid of expressing due to social or legal barriers, and there are those who suffer from social phobia, but this does not mean that there isn't any group capable of expression and their numbers are not even low.”

“The 'Clubhouse' app provides an open and free space to discuss certain topics to a great extent,” she adds, “but this depends on the creators of the room, the topic, and how favorable they can be when it comes to the opinions of others.”

Whatever the case, “Clubhouse” today represents a new space, a fresh scene, and an arena for confrontation between Gulf governments and their societies, according to the head of the Bahrain Press Association. Marzouq explains, “We can observe dozens of Gulf rooms heavy with vocal critical opinions of the Gulf states. The rooms deal with political, economic, and social issues and affairs within various fields, but I do not think that we will wait long to hear the summons and judicial trials of Gulf activists due to their participation on this platform. This is something that is going to happen for sure.”

He goes on to add, “In reality, we have begun to clearly notice the blatant entry of governments in Gulf states in an attempt to compete with activists and journalists in order to strongly influence and shape public opinion. It is a matter of time before the confrontation becomes much fiercer and more intense."

The recent app persists as a free space for citizens of the Gulf and others to make their voices heard and prove their presence, despite the suppression and the restrictions on freedom of expression in many regions around the world.

There is still fear for some people of what they consider “uncontrolled speeches”. Marzouq says, “How can the founding company’s management deal with uncontrolled speech or those that incite hatred and violence? Personally, I listened to unruly speeches in some rooms and wondered whether this platform would have difficulty censoring content, and even whether it was possible to monitor live audio content in the first place.”

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