WhatsApp, What's That? A Popular and Essential Service in the Arab World
By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer
WhatsApp is one of the most popular apps in the world with usage time the highest of all apps internationally. It is less popular in the United States, but throughout Europe, Asia, and the Arab world its wildly popular. In the Arab world at least 84% of people are users and the number is only growing as technology use grows. Why is WhatsApp so popular and why is it so useful and important to Arabs?
In the Arab world, WhatsApp is used in multiple capacities and has even sparked controversy over its use. It is used for: connecting with family and friends, political organization and activism, coordinating first responders, and as an important business and journalism tool. Let’s explore the uses for WhatsApp and why it is so essential in the Arab world.
Using WhatsApp to Connect with Family and Friends
WhatsApp is one of many free VoIP applications. This acronym means voice over Internet protocol and includes popular applications like WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime, Telegram, Viper, etc. These apps make it possible to communicate with someone through messaging and voice or video calls without needing a cellular connection, just an internet connection. For many in the Arab world this is an essential tool to connect with family and friends throughout their home countries, while working or traveling out-of-country, during business, journalism, healthcare, and in just about any other situation.
Especially when calling between countries these services are essential to communicate with family and friends. Expatriate workers, traveling business people, and those who have emigrated to a new country all want to be able to communicate with their family and friends back home. Without these services it is much more difficult. WhatsApp is by far the most popular of these services given its simple, but fun interface and its ease of use.
Political Organization and Activism Over WhatsApp
Along with being a useful VoIP service, WhatsApp is also well-encrypted making it popular for activists looking to not be monitored by the many security services in the Arab world doing so. It also allows the creation of groups crossing cultural, religious, regional, and even language boundaries. These groups help spur and support activism and organization throughout the Arab world, but without WhatsApp this would be far less simple to achieve.
Not only is this app a useful tool in general, but it is also free and in countries with failing telecommunications industries there is often no other way to connect. Yasmine Rifai, 24, organizer of protests in Tripoli, calls WhatsApp the “virtual side of the revolution.” Not only does the app connect people, but these groups are used to share posts for everyone to post on their social media. This helps further the virtual revolutions making so much impact today.
Coordinating First Responders
As referenced earlier, using WhatsApp allows communication even when telecommunications services are down or too expensive. This is essential especially in war-torn countries like Syria and Yemen for coordinating first-responders. Mustafa al-Hajj Younes heads a team of first-aid workers in Syria’s Idleb province and says it’s essential for civilians needing help. Even with small emergencies, volunteer groups can be quickly contacted and coordinated. The WHO also launched a new service in Arabic, English, French, Hindi, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese to provide information about COVID-19 through WhatsApp.
Businesses, Journalists, Education, and More!
WhatsApp is extremely useful in so many aspects of life within the Arab world. Businesses operating with international customers, clients, and partners save money by using it. Just like local citizens they also need the service when their country has high telecommunications fees, when they want to make a work group, or want to communicate with a traveling employee. Journalists also utilize WhatsApp’s services to get information, conduct interviews, share findings, etc. Jordan’s government, as well as many others, also issue broadcast statements in WhatsApp groups and even use it for conducting interviews. WhatsApp even has educational uses; Jamila Sharaf, a mother in East Jerusalem, gets updates on her children’s schooling through the app. There are countless uses for WhatsApp’s VoIP services, but there are sometimes restrictions on these free services and controversy surrounding the essential app.
The Controversy Surrounding WhatsApp
A well-placed Iraqi security source told a journalist for Arab News, “We consider WhatsApp to be the most dangerous application at this stage.” Morocco banned free VoIP in 2016. Syria has completely banned WhatsApp and similar social media applications. Qatar limited VoIP bandwidth in 2017. Lebanon imposed a tax in 2019 on VoIP calls. The UAE banned VoIP calls.
These examples listed above are just a few samples of the restrictions that have been placed on WhatsApp usage. While some are politically motivated, others are based on economic decision-making, but either way the restrictions are still in place. For such an essential application/service, these restrictions are very harmful to Arabs from all walks of life. It does not matter if someone is talking to their family in another country, organizing a protest, advocating for change, talking business, or writing a news story; their access should not be restricted to WhatsApp’s essential services.
Let’s Sum This All Up
WhatsApp is clearly an impressive and important VoIP service used throughout the world for essential communications. No matter one’s needs for the app it is important these free VoIP services are maintained in the Arab world and are not restricted in any way. WhatsApp deserves a big thank you from the Arab world for the services it provides and I am sure the company also thanks the Arab world for adopting its services so widely!
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