Saudi comedians test authorities' limits online

Screenshot of a video by Saudi comedian Omar Hussein.
 
 
Over the past few years, online comedians have become increasingly popular in Saudi Arabia, where younger generations are turning away from TV shows in favour of the self-produced skits that have been popping up all over YouTube. These videos have emerged a small bastion of freedom in the conservative kingdom.
 
Though the comedians are generally inexperienced, some web series have become so popular that they’ve surpassed 10 million views per episode. They broach everyday problems using a very sarcastic tone, but they also touch on big issues like unemployment, the housing crisis, racism, sexism and sometimes ever censorship.
 
“These YouTube channels act as sort of pressure valves,” explains Mohammed Al-Saeedi, one of our Observers in the Saudi kingdom. “It’s a place where people can vent their frustrations, so that they don’t boil over. That’s why the authorities have allowed them to continue, and in fact sometimes even encourage the comedians.” Still, there are lines that comedians must not cross, says Al-Saeedi: “the royal family, religion and sex remain taboo subjects.”
 
Omar Hussein is one of the most popular online comedians in Saudi Arabia. He is also one of the bravest – he notably participated in anti-racism campaigns and supported the movement to lift the ban on women driving. His show, @3al6ayer, is a veritable YouTube phenomenon that has garnered more than 60 million views since its creation in 2010.
 
Even in his earliest shows, Hussein has been testing the Saudi authorities’ limits, as shown by this excerpt below. 

NOTE: To turn English subtitles on in the following videos, click on the subtitles icon on the bottom right corner (just right of the clock).
 
[Editor’s note: It is traditionally recommended to sit in the front row during prayers at a mosque.]
 
The comedian is also not afraid of poking fun at politicians.
 
 
However, these performances come at a risk. Imams have repeatedly criticised the comedian, and in July 2012, he was arrested while shooting a video with his friends, supposedly because he lacked authorisation.
 
Saudi Arabia’s online comedians broach a wide range of subjects. Badr Saleh, who is also very popular, is the star of the show Eysh Elly, in which he roasts the amateur videos posted on YouTube by other Saudis.
 
Contributors

“At first, sharing our performances on YouTube was much safer”

Omar Ramzi, a comedian known as the “White Sudanese” because of his Sudanese father, was one of the first stand-up comedians in Saudi Arabia. Expulsed from Saudi Arabia in 2011, he is now living in Egypt, where he continues to perform. He says he’s very glad that stand-up is getting to be so popular on social networks.
  
When I began performing in 2009, along with several friends like Omar Hussein, we were very scared of the Mutawa [the Saudi religious policy]. When you perform in front of an audience, it is considered to be an assembly. And in order to hold an assembly, you need permission from the authorities. So we were performing in small villages in the desert, very far from large cities. At the same time, some of us were performing on YouTube because we felt it was much safer than performing in public. This medium proved to be really great, because online, comedians can reach not only a Saudi public, but the entire Arab world.
 
Little by little, stand-up comedy has become quite popular in the kingdom, and the authorities have completely accepted it — to such an extent that an emir decided to create a troupe of comedians in 2012. Sponsored stand-up performances are regularly being organised in the larger cities. The Jeddah Comedy Club, which was created in 2012, is one of the biggest comedy venues in the country.
 
“They love sketches about Saudis traveling to the United States or the UK”
 
Saudis adore self-deprecating humour. For instance, they love sketches about Saudis traveling to the United States or the United Kingdom, because the cultural differences lead to very amusing situations. Comedians also like to poke fun at gender relations. In particular, Omar Hussein did a very popular sketch on marriage. During the entire sketch, he pretends to be looking for his wife. He yells: “Where is my wife? Where on earth is my wife?” even though she is right there next to him. He doesn’t recognize her because she is wearing so much makeup. There is a general perception that Saudi women wear a lot makeup.
 
I am delighted that comedians have been able to break with tradition in this way. Even if this was not the initial goal, they have contributed to a certain opening up of society. And this will continue, slowly but surely.
 
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