Why Is Our U.S. Phone Book App So Popular in the Middle East?

The news has been filled recently with reports of vicious attacks on people exercising their freedom of expression. (The public lashing of blogger Raif Badawi for criticizing Islam in Saudi Arabia or the Charlie Hedbo shooting by radical Muslims in France come to mind.) While heartbreaking, these tragedies can also remind us how precious (and precarious) such freedom really is.

That's why we found it oddly curious that so many of our new users come from some of the world's most oppressive Muslim countries, in particular Saudi Arabia.  What's behind their interest in CallerSmart, our iPhone caller ID app that's only available in the U.S.? And does the fact that these users secretly come from places where there are draconian limits on their freedom of expression have anything to do with it?

Why would someone in Saudi Arabia download a U.S. phone book app?

The answer to this question surprised us, although it's as old as the birds and the bees. Saudi Arabia is one of the most restrictive nations on the planet, especially when it comes to men and women who aren't family interacting.

Strict separation of the sexes is the norm in Saudi Arabia, which is governed by Sharia law, a 9th century interpretation of the Qur'an (Islam's holiest book). To enforce such separation, Saudi Arabia has a state-run morality police, whose sole purpose is to keep the sexes apart so nothing scandalous can occur.

This totalitarian moritality police regularly arrest Saudi men for speaking publicly to any woman that's not a family member.  Single men and women are forbidden to mingle without a chaperone present. Women are publicly covered from head to toe in a burka and they are kept separate from men at stores, restaurants, and mosques. There is nowhere for men and women who aren't family to casually meet and interact. When the freedom to express yourself by talking with anyone you'd like from the opposite sex is forbidden, it's an extremely tough scene to meet someone new.

(Though Twitter is super popular, encrypted, private messaging apps like Skype and WhatsApp are also banned in Saudi Arabia because they can be used to flirt. And don't even think about Tinder; it's banned too.)

But because nature always finds a way, even under the oppressive eye of Saudi authorities, single Saudis are putting in the work.

As Vocativ explains, Saudi men call random numbers in hopes of reaching someone that they can chat and flirt with. Men will even drop their phone numbers on scraps of paper from cars within sight of a woman, with the hopes that a) she is single, b) she will actually pick up the paper and c) she will then call them.

(The unattached members of our team would surely die single and alone, because this sounds like a ton of work.)

Given this sort of dating environment, if you're a single Saudi woman with a newfound scrap of paper that's got a telephone number written on it, how do you learn more about that mysterious man before you call him?  Or if you're a single Saudi man and are tired of dialing random phone numbers, how do you up your chances at "getting lucky" i.e. finding a woman on the other end of your shot-in-the-dark calls that might actually be interested in talking with you?

Answer: You download CallerSmart; which lets you type in an unknown U.S. phone number and find the owner's full name and address plus crowd-sourced info about that person.

How far do Saudis go in order to hack into Apple's U.S. App Store?

The only hiccup here is that our app only works for U.S. phone numbers.  We didn't build it to handle users from Saudi Arabia, or users from any of the other Middle Eastern countries, that download our app. 

(Though Saudi Arabia leads the charge, almost 25% of all of our new app downloads come from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is first, followed by Iraq (3% of all downloads), Kuwait (3%), Qatar (2%), Egypt (1%), Morocco (1%), UAE (1%), and Lebanon (1%).)

The fact that our app doesn't work in the Middle East hasn't stopped this ongoing flood of new downloads though.  Given how hard it is to talk with someone of the opposite sex that's not family, it's not that surprising to also learn that Saudi users are willing to "hack into" the U.S. App Store to get our app.

That's right. If you're outside the U.S. and you want to download an app from the U.S. App Store, you have to jump through some hoops.  First, create a fake email address. Then, use it (along with a fake U.S. address) to get a new Apple ID - all so you can access the U.S. App Store.  Apple purposely tries to stop this sort of thing by maintaining country-specific App Stores, though when you're desperate for a date, these sort of restrictions just don't matter!

The lengths that someone from Saudi Arabia, or any of the other Middle Eastern countries which we see so many downloads from, will go to just to get access to an app like CallerSmart reminds us that our human desires to want to express ourselves, to be seen for who we are, and to find love are universal. It's heartbreaking to see users from these Middle Eastern countries download our app because we know that our app can't help them.

It's also a reminder how important our freedom of expression is.  Our misguided Saudi users remind us how far people will go to get it. And tragic attacks on freedom of expression from around the world reminds us that others will go so far as to kill in order to suppress it.