Fahad Albutairi never expected a career in broadcast or comedy, and he certainly didn't expect to emerge as a YouTube star known to millions. Albutairi is the co-founder and star of the La Yekthar Show, a small cadre of YouTube shows shot in Saudi Arabia that have become wildly popular in the last year. His videos are viewed by millions of Saudis each week, many of whom watch for its mixture of humor and political satire. His fame has amassed so quickly, in fact, that he's still working his original day job as a geologist for a government-owned oil company.
Albutairi's success is an example of how use of YouTube has skyrocketed, both in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East as a whole. According to Olivia Ma, a news manager with YouTube, Saudi Arabia has the highest per-capita YouTube use of any country in the world. "We're seeing 167 million views a day around the Middle East region," she says in a phone interview. "And 90 million of those video views are coming from Saudi Arabia per day."
This rise comes as a result of several converging events in the region, with the Arab Spring being the most significant. The movement was notable for its use of digital media to disseminate information and organize protests, and Ma says that one of the site's sharpest spikes occurred during the Egyptian revolution early last year, when protesters uploaded hours of cell phone video aimed at capturing police brutality and events from the ground. "More than 100,000 videos were uploaded during the height of the Arab Spring, which was a 72 percent increase in the number of uploads that we'd seen in the previous three months," Ma says. "So we definitely saw a jump in user updates from Egypt during that time. And that was despite the fact that the government shut down the Internet for five days."
The growth of the mobile market in the Middle East has also contributed to YouTube's rapid expansion. According to Plus7, an ad agency that conducted a survey in the region, 47 percent of Saudi Arabia respondents currently own a mobile data plan. Some of the highest adoption comes from older citizens, with 56 percent of respondents between the ages of 36 and 50 saying they own a smartphone. It's also not uncommon for Saudis to carry two or three phones. "If you look at one of Fahad's most-viewed videos, it has about 3 million views, and about a third of those are coming from mobile devices," says Ma.
YouTube has made an aggressive expansion into the region with last year's launch of localized versions of the platform in several Middle East countries. "A local version of YouTube means that people who visit the site will see on the homepage the most popular videos in their home country along with those that are rising in popularity," the company wrote of the move. Though Saudis were certainly able to open accounts and upload videos prior to this localized version, Albutairi credited it with making it much easier for others to find his work.
Albutairi, 27, grew up in Khobar, a large city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and attended the University of Texas in Austin in 2003, where he majored in geophysics. "I was sponsored by an oil company to graduate with a bachelor of science and come back and work for them," he says. "The contract stipulated that we'll pay for your education and everything along with a monthly stipend as long as you come work for the company for the same number of years you went to college for."
In Austin, Albutairi began to dabble in standup comedy. "I remember the first few performances, I really sucked and had to rethink the approach to all my jokes," he recalls. "For instance, I started basically using my cultural background as a point of reference for a lot of my jokes and that kind of got the crowd to relate more."
When he graduated in December 2007, Albutairi moved back to Saudi Arabia to begin his new job. He assumed his standup days were over since the form was almost nonexistent in Saudi Arabia, and he describes what little comedy the country had as "slapstick and cheesy." In October 2008, however, an opportunity to delve back into standup presented itself. Two comedians he'd long admired, Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani, famous for their Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, happened to be touring in the Middle East."I simply went to the page on Facebook and sent a message and asked if they were holding any auditions," he says. "I was just shooting in the dark, really." After an audition in Bahrain, Albutairi was given a chance to perform twice, each before an audience of more than 2,000 people.