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.
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.
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."
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."
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