“No woman, no drive. Said I remember, when you used to sit in the family car, but backseat. Ova-ovaries all safe and well. So you can make lots and lots of babies.”
These are the opening lyrics of a satirical song parodying Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and poking fun at a Saudi cleric’s statement in which he asserted that women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and pelvises, ultimately birthing children with “clinical problems.” Performed and produced by Saudi comedians Hisham Fageeh and Fahad Albutairi, the YouTube music video, posted on 26 October 2013, calls attention to the “Women2Drive” campaign in Saudi Arabia—an issue of great interest to local and international audiences alike. The video was viewed over twelve million times and garnered the attention of international media, including the BBC, the New York Times, and Al Arabiya. Despite its traction, this video is just one example of the fast-growing appeal of young Saudi comics producing socially and politically critical content exclusively on YouTube. Socially conscious YouTube comedy shows such as 3al6ayer and La Yekthar emerged in 2010 and continue to flourish, explore new terrain, challenge taboos, creatively navigate restrictions, and acquire new viewers every day. While these shows do such work in a carefully calibrated way—raising questions and awareness without explicit criticism—for the first time in recent memory, locally produced shows address, albeit satirically, cultural, socio-political, and economic realities and hardships of everyday life in Saudi Arabia, ones that are rarely ever publicly raised there.
With Internet penetration rates hovering over fifty percent in the kingdom, where daily Internet use is also the highest in the Arab world, Saudi comedians have a massive online market to cater to. Indeed, YouTube views per capita in Saudi Arabia—where seventy percent of the Kingdom’s population is under thirty and active online—exceed those in any other country in the world and is actually increasing. According to a senior YouTube executive, in March 2012, “there had been a 260 percent increase in uploads and views [in Saudi Arabia] in the past year, compared with an average 50 percent increase internationally.” These staggering numbers point to the growing importance in Saudi Arabia of the Google-owned video-sharing site, which allows for the uploading of user-generated content. Unlike mainstream broadcasting and other outlets available in the kingdom, all of which the regime closely monitors, content on YouTube is not controlled by the government or the large Arab media conglomerates, although Google practices its own pro-corporate copyright and censorship laws. Nonetheless, YouTube remains the only platform that Saudi youth, including stand-up comedians, are choosing to use to post and share original content that is then viewed by a wide audience often numbering in the millions.
The existence and widespread proliferation of these comedy shows indicate an opening in the Saudi mediascape, characterized by a lack of public cinemas—which were banned in the 1970s—and, when it comes to political critique, tightly controlled private- and state-owned television stations, neither of which allow for criticism of the regime. As a matter of fact, understanding the state of television and film entertainment in Saudi Arabia helps contextualize the place of local YouTube comedies in the kingdom. Saudi television networks come in two varieties. On the one hand, there are networks that are state-funded, staffed, and supervised under the strict control of the Ministry of Culture and Information. On the other hand, there are several satellite stations that are privately owned by moguls, most of who are royals and others closely aligned to the ruling family. State-run stations are exemplars of closed media systems and serve as government public relations outposts. Private stations, all of which have their headquarters and studios outside the kingdom, have a wider margin of freedom and do not conform to the restrictive social and cultural mores in the country. However, neither the state nor the private television stations allow for any criticism of the authorities or the ruling family in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, all of these networks rely almost exclusively on non-Saudis for talent and employment, with content that is not locally pertinent, further marginalizing Saudi youths from means of cultural production and consumption.
Facing censorship and an absence of public spaces, it is no surprise that Saudi comedians have turned to YouTube as a forum for sharing satire, a form of cultural expression historically popular in the Gulf. It is thus in this context that young comedians like Fahad Albutairi, the twenty-nine year old host and one of the creators of La Yekthar, and Omar Hussein, the twenty-eight year old presenter of 3al6ayer, creatively tackle the different forms of marginalization that Saudis experience while entertaining various age groups with online access. Although Saudis have long accessed backchannels like cassettes and videotapes with political, cultural, and social content from other Arab countries, they now have unrestricted access to alternative media. Not only can they watch and share videos from all over the world, but they can also create and distribute satirical and other forms of mass media content. As such, YouTube provides a comparatively “free” and open space for the expression of opinion, including dissent and criticism, allowing locally produced shows to reach wide audiences and to impact public opinion while simultaneously providing for locally produced entertainment.
Comedy as Critique
Shows like 3al6ayer (“On the Fly”) and La Yekthar (“Put a Lid on It” or “Zip It”), both of which first debuted on their respective channels in September 2010, have flourished among Saudis, thirsty as they are for local entertainment. 3al6ayer, a Daily Show-style program, with Omar Hussein serving the critical newscaster role, is part of the UTURN Entertainment group, which produces content exclusively for YouTube. The show, like the Daily Show, sardonically presents the news—mostly local political, social, and economic stories—with Hussein, manning the anchor’s desk, and also features comedic sketches with fictional situations and correspondent reports. 3al6ayer is among UTURN’s most popular shows, with around 850,000 subscribers and over sixty-six million views. UTURN’S Eysh Elly, which makes fun of videos uploaded by Saudis on YouTube but does not discuss news and socio-political issues like 3al6ayer, is also very popular with close to two million subscribers. 3al6ayer addresses a range of political and social topics of interest to Saudi audiences, including the role of migrant workers in the kingdom and the Saudi media’s unwillingness to cover social problems in the kingdom. Despite the show’s immense success, it has not produced a new episode in over seven months. While unverified, some speculate that the producers may have crossed an invisible red line leading to pressure to discontinue the segments. Nevertheless, thus far, these reports are unverified.
La Yekthar, produced by Telfaz 11, also features a charismatic and recognizable host, Fahad Albutairi. Each episode has Albutairi sitting in a chair in front of the camera, mostly commenting on social life and current events in Saudi Arabia in a casual, conversational, animated and sarcastic manner. The show also has fictional skits with other actors. Among the issues addressed on La Yekthar are corruption and a lack of public spaces for cultural expression. Telfaz 11 is focused on production by and for young audiences. It produces other shows including a cartoon series, a sports show, a satirical news bulletin, and other comedy products. La Yekthar is among its most popular, with over 840,000 subscribers and over eighty million video views. It is important to note that in the context of both production groups, 3al6ayer and La Yekthar, whose hosts have large Twitter followings, are popular, but not the most popular shows. Interestingly, other comedy shows, like Eysh Elly, which sidestep overt social or political commentary, have proven to be more popular.
The comedy that both 3al6ayer and La Yekthar employ has proven to be a powerful tool in sharing their observations and commentary about society through entertainment and lighthearted programming. La Yekthar’s Episode 14 with over five and a half million views, is the show’s mostly popular episode to date. It is a fine example of what sets the show apart from others, and renders it worthy of audience and researcher attention. Notably, it opens with Albutairi discussing a grave and, until recently, a taboo issue: corruption. In his monologue, he facetiously presents the newly established Saudi Anti-Corruption Commission. He explains, tongue-in-cheek, how people will no longer be able to participate in corrupt practices: “no more slipping government contracts to your friends,” he says. This serves two purposes. It highlights various acts of corruption that are widespread and also seems to suggest that it will be quite challenging for the new commission to actually enforce the regulations it has declared.
In this first skit, Albutairi simply presents the topic of corruption as it has been discussed—with a dash of sarcasm delivered through hyperbole—sprinkled with quotes from a Saudi Anti-Corruption Commission newspaper ad that seems to target low-level corruption practices. His aside (“yes, first they start with the employees, then the big businesses soon enough”) suggests a critique of the way in which corruption is being addressed in the country. “Why go after the little guys?” the viewer wonders. All of this is done with subtlety and in some instances non-verbal cues, a register comprehensible to most Saudi viewers. A confused facial expression effectively communicates the ironic critique of the government’s attempts to extinguish corruption while being complicit in entrenching it. The crafty treatment delivered by Albutairi cleverly highlights corruption without ever explicitly acknowledging its existence in Saudi Arabia.
Through a different skit in the same episode, Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh, in an exemplary display of self-deprecating humor plays a Saudi student studying abroad who feigns being shocked by the corruption and depravity of US culture in interviews he conducts in New York`s Times Square. Transplanting Saudi cultural norms (for instance the admonishment of women driving and surprise at how Mickey Mouse let his wife out of the house looking the way she does), Albutairi and Fageeh poke fun at Saudi paranoia of US values. The skit also ironically highlights the fact that, typically, neither knowledge nor culture move from Saudi Arabia to the “west.”
La Yekthar’s Episode 15 addresses the issue of strict behavioral codes and the stifling of cultural and creative activities by ridiculing the lack of educational and cultural activities and excitement in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. In the episode, Albutairi goes to the mall in the hope of seeing girls, but is disappointed to find only men there. Short skits show one character acting out activities that might be interesting, like plays and TEDx talks, were they not tackled by a figure in a thawb and ghitra, shouting “stop!” The ever-present creative drain symbolized by the figure in the thawb and ghitra seems to represent the strict codes of public behavior and the tight control of physical public spaces facing Saudi youth. This embodiment of restriction relies on slapstick humor—the physical tackling of characters—to illustrate Saudi youth`s sense of frustration with suffocating social norms and the apparent absurdity around restrictions on social and cultural activities.
3al6ayer’s episode entitled “Kaaf” (the letter “k” in Arabic)—the most popular 3al6ayer episode to date with over 3 million views—is another noteworthy example of the genre of Saudi YouTube comedy characterized by cultural and socio-political awareness and humor. The episode opens with a clearly critical social message. In a segment called “Good Idea and Bad Idea,” a domestic worker is shown in the kitchen, and then reading with a child, as a voiceover states, “It is a good idea to have the maid as an assistant. But it is a bad idea to have the maid as a mother.” This is a social commentary on parents who, instead of being involved in their children’s lives, allow their children to be raised by domestic helpers. It likewise reveals racist underpinning: it is ok to use domestic workers for certain things, but not others. The segment sarcastically depicts the domestic helper, who is clearly not a native Arabic speaker, attempting to help a young boy read. This makes for an astute and biting observation regarding the lifestyle choices of some Saudis, while also revealing racist humor reinforcing a conception of domestic workers from other countries as inferior. The news segment that follows addresses a report from Al Arabiya stating that sixty percent of building materials in the country are “non-compliant.” A guest presenter then traces the various groups that had been blamed for the issue, who in turn diverted the blame onto other groups. The question this raises is “who ultimately takes responsibility in such cases?” Surely the bricks cannot be held responsible, the presenter jokes. Of course, this can be read as simply one example, or as an allegorical representation of the blame-games and deferral of responsibility that characterizes reaction to the country’s colossal problems.
[3al6ayer`s most popular episode--Kaaf]
The episode offers a third noteworthy example of social and political perspectives by sarcastically presenting current events and critiquing their coverage in the mainstream media. The presenter describes the story of an Egyptian man who was in Saudi Arabia to perform umrah to Mecca. The man reportedly smuggled 21,000 Xanax pills, which he hid in milk bottles. This provokes the presenter to ask, feigning vexation, “What is wrong with our milk and cows? We have even started to export milk to the Third World!” He then wonders why the man would even think of smuggling in Xanax, “which is used to cure depression.” “What do you mean?” he asks. “You mean that our people are not joyful? We are! We have a football stadium, a Soapy Stadium, YouTube programs, and nice funny people!” These emphatic declarations of the country’s greatness (demonstrated through the exportation of milk) and the people’s happiness (ensured by stadiums and YouTube shows) are clearly self-deprecating. They ridicule the tendency to understate social ills and the prevalent expression that Saudi Arabia is perfect, a view many tacitly or actively accept and others remain silent about.
The Limitations of YouTube Comedy
The messages conveyed in the sample episodes of La Yekthar and 3al6ayer discussed above reveal sophistication and self-reflexivity in communicating weighty ideas related to issues of culture, society, economics, and politics. The satirical tools employed in the production of both shows enable the encoding of these messages in a pleasurable and entertaining way. In his work on The Daily Show, Geoffrey Baym posits that Jon Stewart`s program integrates at least two levels of discourse—that of authoritative news and that of entertainment. Baym’s observation that The Daily Show “achieves a critical distance that cannot be said of the networks” applies equally well to these Saudi YouTube comedies. Their sardonic take on media reporting indicates an actively engaged and analytical reading of the news that slyly calls viewers to do the same. 3al6ayer’s treatment of the Xanax smuggling story, for example, uses irony to critique the Saudi news media’s coverage of the event and the questions that it raised. Indeed Saleh’s questioning of the need to bring in medication for depression in a country full of joyful people speaks to delusion and misguided anger on an even wider scale. It invites viewers to identify the ridiculousness of such fiercely patriotic responses to news events. Likewise, Albutairi’s implicit questioning of the regime’s corruption-fighting techniques and messages in La Yekthar’s Episode 14 relies on subtle yet biting humor. Without reading his facial expressions and understanding the subtext of his words—some of which are in fact direct quotes from the Saudi Anti Corruption Commission advertisement—a viewer may not understand the critique embedded in the skit. Albutairi’s confused facial expressions, however, lead the viewer to question the policies that they otherwise may not have given a second thought.
The use of satire, visible in both La Yekthar and 3al6ayer is emphatically dialogical, while news is monologic; “unlike traditional news, which claims epistemological certainty, satire is a discourse of inquiry, a rhetoric of challenge that seeks through the asking of unanswered questions to clarify the underlying morality of a situation.” The observations throughout the two shows, even when they are not referring to the media, but instead are comments on current events or experiences, can likewise be characterized as satirical and dialogic.
The shows` presentation of issues related to society, politics, culture, and the economy do not typically reflect a problem-solution formula, but rather raise questions and awareness about these topics. This may be one reason why they have been able to avoid government intervention thus far. While the government has cracked down on those who have expressed their criticisms—namely of religious matters and those pertaining to the ruling family—on Twitter and even recently on YouTube, Saudi YouTube comedies have managed to evade state intervention thus far. While critical, the shows do not necessarily offer an explicit alternative narrative to that which is officially sanctioned, and certainly steer clear of questioning religion and ruling members of the royal family. The Xanax smuggling and Saudi Anti Corruption Commission skits are excellent examples of this dynamic: they succeed in making the viewer question what he/she may have heard in the news, or laugh at what he/she may have already found ridiculous, but they do not verbalize any commentary on the subject. The use of irony in the re-narrativization of news stories is powerful in provoking both laughter and raising doubt among viewers while largely evading legal repercussions. Perhaps most importantly, they create a community of people, who through laughter and “getting the joke,” however subtle or implied, can collectively and safely express their frustrations.
Another possible explanation for the absence of government disapproval of the shows is their tacit acceptance as a “safety valve” for a repressed public, in which the state allows greater expression in the alternative online spaces in order to allow “citizens to ‘let some of their steam out`." It is also important to note that neither show lays blame on any individual person or group of people. Both shows use case examples of situational comedy as storylines on real life experiences, without direct incrimination, in order to comment on a variety of mostly significant, and occasionally frivolous, topics. Allowing these highly visible and popular comedies to flourish in Saudi Arabia, the government may effectively be sanctioning such expressions in an effort to appease the young masses enjoying this content. If watching comedies and participating in social media keeps youth happy and placated—even at the expense of mocking culture, society, and politics in the country—it remains a preferable alternative to widespread discontentment among youth and the potential for popular mobilizations and organizing. Indeed, “Facebook activism” or “armchair activism” while a function of the Saudi digital experience, is a global phenomenon. Today, greater numbers of people come together online around issues, but they are no more likely to mobilize to change the status quo than before. Thus media consumption of political knowledge—while informing through entertainment—can have a demobilizing and depoliticizing effect.
The relevance of the topics presented on 3al6ayer and La Yekthar, and indeed on other less critical Saudi YoutTube comedies (such as Eysh Elly) is key to their success. They offer an alternative to traditional media entertainment, which typically lacks locally produced and relevant content. While the shows are far from overt calls to action, and instead provoke viewers to become more media literate or join in laughing at Saudi social and cultural predicaments, they nevertheless demonstrate an openness in expression in the Saudi public sphere, notable for the wide audiences they reach, both within Saudi Arabia and abroad. Instead of understanding these programs as “revolutionary” in actively calling for change, it would be more accurate and succinct to characterize them as socially, culturally, and politically engaged comedic expressions.
In both open as well as tightly controlled media environments, humor can entertain and inform. Particularly since this content is posted online, its mediation through social networks “demonstrate[s] relationships and reinforce[s] group solidarity, in addition to serving as a mechanism for identity creation. Thus, Saudi YouTube comedies are not simply important due to their sizeable audience footprint, but for the critical frames they present which may potentially impact viewers’ perceptions. According to the philosopher John Searle in his book Freedom and Neurobiology, “whenever two or more agents share a belief, desire, intention, or other intentional state, and wherever they are aware of so sharing, the agents in question have collective intentionality. This notion of "collective intentionality" aptly encapsulates the function of YouTube comedies in Saudi society. They allow for the building of community around dialogic contentious programming that asks problematic questions. The great number of people watching this content on YouTube and following the personalities behind them Twitter and Facebook demonstrates the resonance that this type of programming has had on viewers. It fosters a sense of issue-based collective identity and social belonging that might not otherwise have a place in the lingdom`s restrictive public discourse. Even in the seemingly harmless communal act of laughter there is a self-evident disruption of the status quo. While on the surface, communities built around laughter may not appear to be transformational, they nevertheless inadvertently instill a newfound critical consciousness likely to have long-lasting repercussions for public discourse. Even when communities forming around Saudi YouTube comedies like 3al6ayer and La Yekthar are not perceived as overt dissenters, they are, however, embracing low-grade long-term social, political, and economic contestation, otherwise prohibitively admonished in their surrounding milieu.
 It should be noted that international releases are available to Saudi viewers either through local pay and free to air television, albeit with a delay of six to eighteen months, or through black market VHS or DVD copies of international films.
 Geoffrey Baym, "The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism, "Political Communication 22 (2005): 259-76, Print, 262.
 Ibid, 267.
 Ramesh Srinivasan, "Bridges Between Cultural and Digital Worlds in Revolutionary Egypt," The Information Society: An International Journal 29.1 (2013): 49-60.
 Caleb T. Carr, David B. Schrock, and Patricia Dauterman, "Speech Acts within Facebook Status Messages," Journal of Language and Social Psychology 31 (2012): 176-96.
 John R. Searle (2007). Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power, New York: CUP, 85.