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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Greg Gause, a professor at the University of Vermont who teaches Middle East politics, suggests that celebrities like Albutairi are at least partially protected because their content exists on the Internet. "The YouTube guys might get a little bit more leeway because their medium is so new and they don't answer to owners," he says. "If you write a newspaper column and it offends someone high up in the royal family, they call their cousin who owns the newspaper and say, 'Get rid of this guy.' And that happens."

Oddly enough, Saudis devote very little manpower to regulating the Internet. According to a 2008 Business Week article, there are only 25 government employees deployed to the effort. "The country's Communications & Information Technology Commission (CITC) uses software to block clear-cut violations, such as websites for porn and gambling," Businessweek wrote. "But for pretty much everything else it relies on citizens who send in roughly 1,200 requests a day to have sites blocked." The Guardian reported in 2009 that Saudi Arabia "operates a 'sophisticated' filtering system run by the internet services unit at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in the capital Riyadh."

Even though millions of Saudis tune into each episode of the La Yekthar Show and Albutairi is regularly recognized on the street, he still continues to work his day job, saying he doesn't want to be sued for not fulfilling his contract. His four and a half years are up in July, and he's likely to resign soon afterward. Asked how his coworkers have reacted to his newfound fame, he says it's been a mixed bag.

"They keep asking me when I am going to quit because they want more episodes and don't want me to waste time working anymore. The managers, they don't like it. They're like, 'You're spending a lot of time on this and not giving enough of your time.'"

Albutairi and his team haven't made much money yet from the show, but he says they already have several sponsors and traditional media outlets have asked to work with him. But speaking to him, it's obvious that he isn't used to the idea of a college student who once stammered through jokes during open mic nights in America now being known to millions of Saudis, more famous than several members of the Saudi royal family. The magnitude of it all hasn't escaped him.

"In October 2008 the whole comedy thing to me was just something on the side," he says. "Within a few years, the whole thing shifted. What I thought was going to be a hobby had turned into a career. And what I thought had been my career had become my job." 

Simon Owens is an assistant managing editor at US News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. He can be reached at sowens@usnews.com

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