Saudi Satire Ignites YouTube's Massive Growth in Middle East

YouTube has become a vibrant platform for political satire in the country.

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Soon after, he would perform his first local show in Saudi Arabia. One performance led to another, and he developed a regular act, sometimes leaving the country to attend comedy festivals in locales as diverse as Jordan and New York.

Albutairi had long been an avid fan of American YouTube artists like Philip DeFranco and Ray William Johnson, coming to admire the one-man narrative approach to storytelling. He liked this style because it would allow him to comment on issues that wouldn't fit well in a standup routine. "Stuff that's considered more sociopolitical," he says. "Stuff that I've always wanted to talk about that I can make funny with visual aids."

The first episode of his show, posted in late 2010, is punctuated by a wide-ranging and disjointed focus, jumping quickly among several topics—from the labeling of soft drinks to Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who at the time had received worldwide condemnation for threatening to burn copies of the Quran. In its first week, the video received 30,000 views, which at the time, seemed astronomical to Albutairi. 

It isn't until the third episode when you see the first signs of pointed criticism aimed toward the Saudi government. In a skit titled "Technical Error," for instance, the group satirizes the bureaucratic mess of Saudi telecom companies by depicting their employees playing "Hide and Seek" whenever they put their customers on hold. While this kind of satire would seem timid in the West, the show has since been pushing outward against what is permissible in Saudi Arabia.

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In terms of free speech, Saudi Arabia's traditional media outlets are subject to some of the most draconian censorship in the world. "I've never seen a country more heavily censored," says David Commins, a professor of history at Dickinson College who studies the region. "I lived in Syria in the early '80s and the censorship there was all political, whereas in Saudi Arabia, every female image is censored to the point where if a department store is selling a piece of clothing or bed linen, and the box is from Europe and contains a photograph of a woman on it, they put black paper over the woman's bare shoulders and sometimes they'll ink out her face."

While the level and breadth of censorship in the country is extreme, Commins says the Saudis rely more on "soft pressure" rather than brute force to crack down on violators. "Religious reformers get thrown in jail, but more likely they're fired from their jobs, because most Saudis work in the public sector, so the government has a lot of economic leverage on people."

When critics do speak out against the government, it's often in roundabout ways. "You can complain about the system, about bureaucracy, about ministers if they're not royal family," Commins says. "But the royal family is definitely off limits." Under no circumstances can you directly criticize the king.

Albutairi says the group often uses symbolism to avoid overtly lashing out at individuals. In one skit, for instance, one of the characters is seen holding a green folder. "One of the major symbols for unemployment is the green folder," he says. "Till this day if you want to apply for a job, you still need to have that folder, because the archives are still paper archives. They're not done electronically yet. We have that in the beginning of a sketch where I start playing music, and I grab a green folder and start dancing to the music."

Muted as they are, Albutairi says that his videos have had real-world effects in the country. After the show debuted its "Technical Error" skit, a friend of his who works at a telecom company told him that customers, when asked to be placed on hold, will sometimes reply, "Oh, does this mean you're going to go play Hide and Seek?"

There have also been a few "gotcha" moments captured on camera, that, after they went viral on YouTube, caused significant embarrassment to government officials. In one case, a minister for the Civil Service Ministry openly mocked a group of engineers who were demanding a salary raise they had been promised. "It was caught on camera, put up on YouTube, and a lot of the comedy shows picked it up as material. And next you know, he's not the minister anymore … Basically officials are now very careful what they say."