Watching YouTube in Saudi Arabia

Tabatha Leggett

When Abdullah Mando flew to Montreal in 2004, he promised himself he would one day return to Jeddah. No one believed him: he was on his way to Concordia University to study film production, and going back to Saudi Arabia, where there aren’t any cinemas, seemed absurd. He grew up watching bootleg copies of Western movies, but ‘American films didn’t speak to me,’ he says. ‘They didn’t ask questions young Saudi people were asking.’ And so, along with Anmar Fatheldeen and Omar Murad, Mando set up UTURN Entertainment, an online television network.

Mando, Fatheldeen and Murad commissioned five shows, funding a three-episode pilot for each. Three were axed and two took off. A month later, UTURN’s videos had been viewed 200,000 times. Nine years on, its YouTube channel has more than 170,000 subscribers, it employs 45 full-time and 100 part-time staff, and with product placement from brands such as Lipton, Vaseline, Toyota and The Body Shop, it’s starting to earn big money. Per capita, Saudi Arabia has the highest YouTube use in the world: 28 million people watch 90 million videos a day. ‘When I was in high school, this is what I was looking for,’ Mando says. ‘Films about people like me. Today, kids can find them on YouTube. That’s huge.’ UTURN is showing its videos with Edge of Arabia as part of RHIZOMA (Generation in Waiting) at the Venice Biennale.

UTURN’s most popular drama is Takki, made by Mohammad Makki: the first episode has been viewed more than two million times. ‘It’s about a boy who wants to be a filmmaker in Saudi Arabia, the country with no cinema,’ Makki says. He grew up in Jeddah, but his family originates from Indonesia, and he spent many summers in Jakarta with his uncle: ‘He knows that there is no art scene in Saudi so he spent as much time as he could taking me to different art places.’

Takki isn’t political, but it doesn’t shy away from controversy and the authorities removed one of its episodes from YouTube for two weeks. ‘In that episode, we show a boy selling alcohol and reference hay’ah, the religious police,’ Makki says. ‘We just showed them asking the main character, who was selling alcohol, to go with them to the police station. That’s where the episode ends. Everyone thought we’d show them in a bad way in the next episode. That’s why it got blocked.’

Makki says that UTURN reassured the government they had no intention of showing the religious police in a negative light, and the episode was unblocked. Its hits immediately shot up by 70 per cent.

‘Everyone knows that there are lines you should not cross,’ Makki says. ‘You can’t show anything sexual or anything with a heavy political message.’ But he got away with filming a scene with an unmarried Saudi couple in a car together, and he uses music in every episode: ‘About half of our YouTube viewers think it’s bad. The other half is cool with it. The government doesn’t seem to mind.’

Why, when it restricts freedom of expression in almost every other medium, is the Saudi government relatively lenient towards YouTube? Makki thinks it’s part of an effort to connect with young people. ‘Shows on UTURN give them constructive criticism,’ he says. ‘They show what young people think need to be fixed. We’ve had government officials messaging us saying: “I support your show. I like what you guys are doing.” They’re supporting this creative movement.’

Mando is more realistic. First, he points out that although UTURN’s shows are breaking new ground, the views they put forward are held by the majority. ‘As soon as you start having an opinion, it becomes tricky,’ he explains. ‘If your agenda goes against mainstream opinion, that’s bad.’

Second, ‘parts of the Saudi government, particularly the executive branches and the ministries, don’t know how to deal with what’s happening with new media. The Ministry of Information doesn’t have commercial laws for new media companies. They’re still trying to understand it.’