WhatsApp down: how parts of the Middle East came to depend on the messaging service

The platform has become ubiquitous across the region, as Monday's outage underlined

Facebook and WhatsApp have long been staples of Middle East communication, with the former's audience in the region expanding from fewer than 20 million a decade ago to almost 200 million today. WhatsApp has also become progressively more important since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Both platforms have grown rapidly in recent times, especially in countries such as Iraq, which once had little internet access owing to lack of landline networks.

So, when both services went down on Monday, people in the Middle East were as perturbed as those in the rest of the world.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 500 people in the region last year found that 75 per cent of respondents increased their use of the messaging service during the pandemic.

Last year, health services increased their use of the app to tackle emergencies.

In Tunisia, it became common for doctors to use WhatsApp to send pictures of medical scans to health centres in Tunis for analysis.

“In Egypt, we use WhatsApp to exchange information in the hospital. It has been a major problem since this outage. It was the main method of communication in a lot of hospitals,” one user wrote on Twitter.

Other uses included allowing religious leaders to stay in touch with congregations, something that became vital when services in mosques were restricted.

When WhatsApp went down on Monday, Dar Al Ifta, one of Egypt’s foremost Islamic advisory bodies, told followers that TikTok could still be used to find its latest updates.

Its Telegram account could also be used as a backup to Instagram, Dar Al Ifta said.

But it was not just public services – families and religious groups sought backup when the system went down.

Saif Al Dabbagh, who works in financial technology in Baghdad, said that WhatsApp going down was a relief from constant messaging.

But he said that his business had prepared, quickly migrating to Telegram when the sites went down.

"We went straight to telegram for business messaging. And we were able to continue messaging and customer care via our website."

"I guess it gave a break for people," he said. "Like restarting your PC."

Lebanon's WhatsApp tax

Even before the pandemic, the app was especially popular in places where the public has become disgruntled by patchy telecoms services.

That became clear in late 2019, when the Lebanese government, facing an economic crisis, proposed a $6 monthly tax on WhatsApp users.

The resulting protests forced the government to reconsider, but the episode came to symbolise how many Lebanese people had become tired of inadequate government policy.

In June, Algeria blocked access to most social media platforms for five days, ostensibly as a crackdown on exam cheating. It is a practice other countries have followed, including Iraq and Ethiopia.

Iraq repeatedly shut down not only social media, but cut internet across the country during protests in 2019, in which Iran-backed militias killed at least 500 demonstrators as tens of thousands of people gathered in major cities.

Referring to the protest movement and the many Iraqis who are detained without trial or who were abducted by militias, Iraq’s delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross urged its Twitter followers on Tuesday to imagine being unable to contact a loved one.

“Yesterday, #Facebook, #Instagram & #WhatsApp were down. It was such an annoying feeling not to be able to check-in & reach out to our loved ones. This is a lot like what the families of the #missing are going through everyday. Everyday, day after day."

Protests in Iraq since the October 2019 Tishreen movement quietened during the pandemic and the current government of Mustafa Al Kadhimi has refrained from using internet blackouts.

But within weeks of protests abating under lockdowns and harsh security crackdowns, Iraqis were back finding ways to use WhatsApp, and doctors were soon giving remote health consultations using the app.

Updated: October 6th 2021, 5:31 AM