Over the past few weeks, my phone has been vibrating with a stream of notifications from Clubhouse. The invite-only audio platform has been downloaded more than 8 million times globally. At home in Saudi Arabia, it feels like just about everyone I know is joining; I get an alert each time someone does. Last week, for instance, the app notified me that my fifth-grade violin teacher had signed up. “Free to welcome them in?” read the nudge.
Clubhouse, which has erupted in popularity in Saudi Arabia recently (it’s currently the most downloaded social media app in the country’s app stores), is in a precarious position: it’s home to conversations that were previously had either in private or anonymously, online, behind blank avatars and unidentifiable usernames. Now they’re happening in what seems like the open for anyone to hear. Unlike in China or Iran, social media apps don’t usually get banned in Saudi Arabia. Instead, they are closely monitored. While the country has incredibly high social media engagement, with more than 70% of the population actively using social media, conversations are broadly moderated, sometimes by an army of bots, but mostly by Saudis’ deep-seated habit of self-censorship. But the explosion of Clubhouse in Saudi has created a rare window for unprecedented conversations to take place.
I spent the most formative years of my life, from ages 8 to 18, in Riyadh. I’m part of the last generation that grew up before the reign of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose sweeping reforms have dramatically changed Saudi society since his father, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, became ruler of the country in 2015. Every time I’ve visited home in the years after, the changes have felt monumental: restaurants that once partitioned men from women, with separate doors for “singles” (young men) and “families,” are now desegregated and bustling with music and conversation. Women are driving and working in jobs that were once exclusively for men. Social precedents — the bedrock of Saudi life — are continuously challenged. The conversations I hear on Saudi Clubhouse, from the mundane to the political, are capturing a country in flux.
When I downloaded the app, more than a month ago, one of the first “rooms” or conversations I entered was titled “Why is the phrase ‘women are taking men’s jobs’ so common?” The room included, at one point, around 150 people, who debated issues of sexism, economic policy, and culture. “There’s a reason why women are nurses and men are in finance,” one man said. A woman responded by pointing out that there are more female graduates of Saudi universities than men. Another man said that his mother and sister feel the need to work twice as hard to prove that they haven’t been hired just on the basis of their gender.
As I sat in my childhood bedroom and listened in, I was struck by the tenacity of the female speakers, who were firmly voicing their experiences to an audience of strangers. Despite the changes ushered in by MBS, it’s still unusual to hear people in Saudi Arabia speak frankly instead of relying on the meandering and vague sentiments usually expressed in conversations like these. In the decade that I spent living in Saudi Arabia, having open and honest discussions, in public and among strangers no less, was completely taboo. Even with friends at a restaurant, for instance, we would steer away from topics that even fringed on the political.
In a country that lacks traditional outlets for open public discourse, such as city halls or a parliament, Clubhouse has opened the floodgates. But as it becomes more popular, there’s a growing sense of restraint among some users in Saudi Arabia.
Thirty-four-year-old Raneen Bukhari grew up in Saudi but has been living in Los Angeles for the past year. She joined Clubhouse in September, when the platform was still a niche app used largely by Silicon Valley tech bros. But as it took off in her home country, Bukhari began attending and starting conversations about women’s issues.
“My rooms mostly are about sexuality, mansplaining, sexism in our society, specifically in Saudi Arabia,” she told me over the phone. In the beginning, before Clubhouse became more mainstream, the reception was encouraging. Now, as more diverse opinions enter the conversation, Bukhari said, she’s forced to rein in certain discussions and protect her rooms from loud opposing voices. “I’ve heard things on this app that would have been banned if it was on any other platform,” she explained. “Sexist stuff, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic stuff,” mostly from Saudi men.
On February 10, just as Clubhouse was gaining traction with Saudi users, a prominent women’s rights activist in the country named Loujain Al Hathloul was released from prison, where she spent more than 1,000 days for defying Saudi Arabia’s since-repealed ban on women driving. Media coverage of Al Hathloul’s prison sentence has long been a thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side, especially while Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has been attempting to rehabilitate the country’s human rights image abroad.
In the hours following Al Hathloul’s release, a Clubhouse room was created to discuss the topic. It was promptly shut down after speakers accused some participants of being traitors and threatened to share screenshots that included the names of everyone who attended on Twitter. Clubhouse’s terms of service explicitly forbids recording calls without written consent from speakers. But the threat of exposing the attendees was enough to close the room.
Around the same time, Chinese authorities banned Clubhouse after discussions of political topics like the internment camps for China’s Muslim Uyghur minority began appearing on the platform. The decision made many people in Saudi Arabia question whether the app would be censored or at the very least surveilled and moderated.
A 28-year-old Clubhouse user based in Riyadh, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity to protect his safety, told me Saudi censorship isn’t blatant the way it can be elsewhere. “If you force people to self-censor, it rids the need to censor from a government level,” he said.
“It’s not a fear about being reported, necessarily,” explained Bukhari in Los Angeles. “It’s just how we function in our society in general: we know what we can talk about and what we cannot.”
Clubhouse was initially attractive to Saudi users because rooms were small, allowing for control and knowledge of who exactly was listening. But privacy for uncensored conversations has become more difficult to secure as the app’s use base grows. The Clubhouse user in Riyadh, and others like him, wonders whether there already are forms of discreet government surveillance on the app or will be in the future. Saudi Arabia’s minister of communications, Abdullah Al-Swaha, joined the platform earlier this month.
For the past two weeks, the country has been in another Covid-19 lockdown, with public spaces such as restaurants and gyms closed. For many users, including myself, Clubhouse is supplanting the IRL conversations that have been lacking during the pandemic. The feeling of being on the app resembles that of being surrounded by people; it mimics the experience of serendipitous encounters, bumping into strangers, overhearing an argument, and listening to something that changes your mind.
Even before the pandemic, free-flowing conversations were rare in Saudi Arabia. And like many Saudis on Clubhouse, I’m left wondering whether I should enjoy it while I can, or whether the conversations I hear in these “rooms” will eventually bleed into my real life.