Taboo-breaking Saudi films spur debate in staid kingdom

Wed Apr 4, 2012 3:23pm EDT
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By Asma Alsharif

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - An important Saudi official riding in a chauffered Rolls Royce unspools a wire fence across previously unclaimed land. "It's mine now," he says.

The scene, in a YouTube spoof video satirising a new state agency to combat corruption, has attracted 2.2 million viewers in a strait-laced Islamic kingdom where Saudi online comedians are tackling once-taboo subjects - and gaining a wide following.

Another video satirises a prince for mishandling anti-corruption demonstrations, while mobile phone footage of the so-called morality police harassing a family in a shopping mall went viral this year with over 180,000 hits. The overall impact of such vignettes cannot be measured, but in Saudi Arabia, where around 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and where Internet penetration is around 40 percent, social media are driving public debate on a host of subjects that were once seen as strictly off-limits. "(Our) team is very careful not to cross the red lines and instead reflects all the issues that have caused controversy or debate that have been discussed in the media," said Lama Sabri, a writer for "Aaltayer", which translates roughly as "On The Fly", one of the popular YouTube shows.

"The program also uses comedy to make fun of the existence of these red lines," she added.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with no elected parliament, where the most senior positions are occupied by high-ranking royals, some of whom also have extensive business interests. The media is censored and reporters who cross unofficial red lines can face the sack, hefty fines or even prison sentences. But bloggers and contributors to online forums now openly discuss social ills, government inefficiency and corruption, while a Twitter user who ridicules the royal family has attracted 250,000 followers. "The Internet has always provided a space for Saudis to express themselves freely in unprecedented ways, and this (Twitter) is just the latest platform," said Ahmed al-Omran, a well-known Saudi blogger. "People are becoming more vocal and critical on Twitter."

Social media helped to catalyse the political unrest that convulsed many Arab countries last year, mobilising street protests that overturned regimes and led to mass insurrection across North Africa and the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia, where the king is broadly popular, escaped that surge of public anger and analysts say the growth of more forceful debate is unlikely to send crowds into the streets.

SATIRE AND PARODY   Continued...

Members of the Uturn comedian pose for picture in Jeddah March 26, 2012. REUTERS/Susan Baaghil (