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.