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‘Uniquely Captive Audience’

Matt Smith reports for Reuters:

The restrictions on Saudi society, where morality police patrol public spaces to enforce approved modes of behavior, has created a uniquely captive audience for web-based news and entertainment, media experts say.

With a population of 28.3 million, Saudi Arabia is now the biggest user of YouTube per capita in the world, and according to analysts Semiocast was the eighth most active country on Twitter as of April, accounting for 2.33 percent of all tweets.

Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia

Abu Dhabi-based the National profiles comedian Fahad al-Butairi, a Saudi YouTube star:

A show that pokes fun at the inner mechanisms of a country considered to be the most conservative in the region – if not the world – might be considered ripe for censorship.

But although Albutairi admits they’ve had to occasionally reach out to lawyers for consultation, he says the show has so far been untouched by censorship. “People think that, because we talk about certain political or socio-political issues, we’ve got into trouble with the government. But, no, they’ve been encouraging, for some reason.”

Saudi Youth Idle No More

Sabria S. Jawhar says the perception that “Saudi youths are idle, humorless and disengaged from the political and societal movements” was probably true for previous generations, but it is not the case for the new generation. You can see that, she says, in the many YouTube comedy shows produced by young Saudis over the past two years:

More important than simply entertainment, the Saudi government can learn a great deal about what young people think, especially as ministries prepare to introduce new regulations that affect society in general or more specific issues like employment. Their comedic commentaries are a constructive way to express disappointment without being confrontational.

Saudi Internet Café Charges Customers to Create a Twitter Account

An Internet café in Saudi Arabia is charging money to create Twitter and Facebook accounts for its customers, the local al-Sharq daily reported. According to the newspaper, owners of the Internet café in the city of Gonfotha, western Saudi Arabia, offer to help computer illiterate customers create accounts on social media sites in return for what is described as a “symbolic fee.” The cost for creating a Facebook account SR 10, and creating a Twitter account would cost SR 20. As for creating an account on video sharing site YouTube, that would be SR 30 per user. One US dollar equals SR 3.75.

Use of social media sites in Saudi Arabia has exploded over the past two years. Recent numbers show there are more than 6 million Facebook users in the country, according to numbers released by The Social Clinic, a consultancy firm based in Jeddah. Twitter has become one of the most active platform for public debate in Saudi Arabia, with more than 3 million users posting more than 50 million tweets per month. Saudi citizens are also leading the consumption of online video in the Middle East, with users from Saudi Arabia accounting for 190 million views out of the 240 million daily YouTube views in the region.

Illustration courtesy of Esther Vargas on Flickr.

Saudi Arabia, YouTube Nation

About eighty percent of the daily views of YouTube videos in the Middle East come from Saudi Arabia, marking an increase of 109 percent in consumption rate since last year, said Google’s Head of Emerging Arabia Abdulrahman Tarabzouni in Riyadh yesterday according to the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat daily. Saudi users account for 190 million views out of the 240 million daily YouTube views in the region, he said. Tarabzouni, who was speaking during the ArabNet conference, added that Saudis produce 34 percent of the content uploaded to YouTube and that they are responsible for 25 percent of searches on Google in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia All Atwitter

Twitter and YouTube have become so relevant to the public discourse in Saudi Arabia that there is now a bi-weekly YouTube show solely dedicated to what Saudi users of Twitter are talking about. The new show is simply called “What Happened in Twitter” and the first episode was published today.

Numbers support that. Saudi Arabia has the highest consumption of YouTube videos per capita in the world, said ArabNet CEO Omar Christidis, according to Saudi Gazette today. Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, told the Los Angeles Times in July that “Saudi Arabia is the fastest-growing country with 3,000% growth” on the service during June 2011.

You need another example to show Twitter power in the country?

Blogger Fouad al-Farhan received an anonymous tip Wednesday morning telling him that Khaled al-Tuwaijri, Chief of the Royal Court and Private Secretary of King Abdullah, now has an account on Twitter. He was properly skeptical at the beginning because there have been many fake accounts pretending to belong to al-Tuwajri, a secretive man who never speaks to the media and who is said to have a wide influence over government policy.

However, the account had the checkmark next to the username, which means that the account is actually verified by Twitter to belong to al-Tuwairi. People started to follow him at an astonishing rate. When al-Farhan checked the account in the morning, it had only 65 followers. Ten hours later, the account now has more than 32,531 followers. More than 25,000 of these followers came in the matter of two hours between 7-9pm KSA time.

Those followers were in for disappointment. Saud al-Qahtani, a journalist with connections at the royal court, said that al-Tuwaijri does not plan to tweet anytime soon. The account has been reserved and verified to prevent impersonation that has become very common on the service.

Using the social search site Topsy to check, it seems that al-Tuwaijri has actually used the Twitter account to send four tweets before deleting them. Whether he ends up actively using the account or not, the fact that the elusive al-Tuwajri found it necessary to verify his presence on Twitter is a testament to the popularity of the social network in Saudi Arabia.

In Supportive Gesture, Saudi Prince Visits New Media Startup

Several local media outlets have published a press release put out by the Jeddah-based digital production company U-Turn to publicize a visit made by Prince Miteb bin Abdullah to the company’s HQ in the coastal city last month. This is interesting for a couple of reasons.

Prince Miteb, the King’s son, is Commander of the National Guard who also attends the weekly cabinet meetings in his capacity as state minister. He is also one of the major contenders to assume one of the leadership positions in Saudi Arabia’s succession plans.

U-Turn is a new media startup founded by Anmar Fathaldin and his friends in 2010. They produce YouTube shows that focus on entertainment with a social-conscious message. Their flagship show, “3al6ayer” (“On the Fly”), has been widely praised, and their YouTube channels have been watched by millions of viewers.

They are the pioneers in the field of new media production in Saudi Arabia, and they were soon followed by a few similar startups like C3 Films and Sa7i.

Using YouTube as their main medium, these new media companies founded by young people are tapping into a huge market. With more than 90 million views every day, Saudi Arabia has the highest number of YouTube views in the world per Internet user. According to stats released by Google, 76 percent of Saudi internet users actively watch videos on their smartphones.

“Miteb bin Abdullah’s visit is a recognition of our influence,” said Lama Sabri, a psychology graduate who works as a writer in U-Turn. The 24-year-old said the prince took a tour at the company’s HQ then sat down for an informal chat with the staff. “He did most of the talking,” Sabri said. “He said ‘you are doing a good thing and the state is supporting you’.”

The visit certainly constitutes a high level of support coming from one of the country’s top senior officials, but Sabri insisted that this won’t change the way they work. “We control the content,” she said. “Not the advertisers or any personality. The way we work has not changed,” since Miteb bin Abdullah visited them on October 16, 2012.

However, she expressed concern that some people might perceive the visit as an official stamp of approval by the government. “People begin to wonder if we are backed by the government. This is not true,” she said.

The rising voices on social media are often described as a source of anxiety to the government, and some observers might see such visit as an attempt to co-opt these new voices. Most of the YouTube shows have been careful about pushing the red lines, but makers of the show say they see social change as part of their role.

Anmar Fathaldin told Saudi Gazette in September they still have a long way to go. He has since left U-Turn to start a new company.

“We are still at baby steps.”