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The Arab Spring has yet to touch down on the sands of Saudi Arabia, and advocates face an uphill battle mobilizing an apathetic general public that seems to accept the country's all-powerful monarchy.
Now, however, young Saudi videographers are using YouTube to air a series of video reports that reveal the underside of life in the world's biggest oil producer.
The narratives are compelling and the journalism impassioned as they guide their audience through slums in the major cities, satirize the severe national housing shortage and ridicule the government's failure to respond.
Judging from the number of times the videos have been viewed and the comments posted by embittered viewers, the muckraking venture is a hit. The biggest testament to its success, however, comes from the Saudi interior ministry: Days after "Poverty in Saudi Arabia," the latest video, was uploaded to YouTube, the ministry detained reporter Feros Boqna and two colleagues, Hussam al Drewesh and Khaled al Rasheed, and held them for almost two weeks for questioning.
Since its posting, the Arabic version of "Poverty" has been viewed more than 1.5 million times. That would be equal to nearly one-tenth of Saudi Arabia's population of 18 million. (A version with English subtitles can be found here.)
"Wake me when the people take control over their own fate, when justice (is) spread without hindrance, when people say what is right without fear of punishment," one commenter identified as Nour al Riadh posted. But the comment was soon removed and no new comments are allowed.
King Abdullah commands respect for his record of reforms and for his role as protector of Islam's holiest places. The ruling House of Saud is closely tied to the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, which enforces sharia, or Islamic law, through the use of religious police; dominates public education; and has fought to keep women in an inferior position.
But social grievances appear to be numerous and widespread, and, prior to their removal, some of the responses to "Poverty" on YouTube criticized the king.
The film that landed its producers in trouble was part of a series called "Maloob Alayna," which translates to, "We've been cheated." It opens with Boqna saying to young Saudis in luxury cars, "If you are fine?" Each replies: "Then we are fine." The camera then cuts to a slum where no one is fine.
The opening was a subtle poke at the King, who in the past has used the line: "If you are fine, we are fine!"
"These clips we are going to watch are not from Somalia. It's in Saudi Arabia, in the Jarradiah neighborhood, less than five kilometers from the center of Riyadh," says Boqna, an earnest and engaging young man who, judging from the video, is probably in his mid-20s. Efforts to reach him for an interview were unsuccessful.
One Saudi man he interviews has 11 children to feed and a net monthly income of $1,200, half of which goes to rent. The family has enough money left over only for flour and one meal a day. The imam at the local mosque reveals that in order to raise money for the household, the parents are sending out young sons to sell drugs, and the women engage in prostitution.
Boqna proposes an obvious solution: for charitable groups to visit the poor, "to know their needs and then later to bring supplies and goods to these poor people." He does just that on film and proposes setting up a website to funnel charity to the poor around the country, a project that appears to be on hold.
An even bigger hit is "Monopoly," a black comedy satirizing the housing shortage by Bader Alhomoudi. The 22-minute acted production portrays a generation of young professionals whose salaries don't allow them to contemplate buying even an apartment. In its first month, it was viewed 1.48 million times.
"Monopoly" opens at sunrise on the Persian Gulf, where Mohammad al Qahtani, a young Saudi, rolls out of his Chevy van in white pajamas and praises God for his good fortune. It's clear that he spent the night in the vehicle. A Koranic verse is chanted as he performs his morning ablutions in the sea, and it comes across as ironic.
"Thy Guardian Lord hath not forsaken thee, nor is he displeased. Did He not find thee an orphan and give thee shelter? And he found thee wandering and gave thee guidance, and He found thee in need and made thee independent. "
Sitting in the van with a bedspread behind him, Qahtani declares that he's planning to get married, as soon as the bride's family approves. "I don't lack anything, as you can see," he says, indicating the interior of the van that the viewer realizes will be their home. "I only need to redecorate the place with new furniture."
A friend has offered to help him tint the windows. "You know how newlyweds need their privacy," Qahtani says.
There are a number of droll vignettes, but the most vivid scene is a re-enacted nightmare, where Saudi princes, presumably landowners, transform into dogs, pounce on a young professional and kill him.
A Saudi economist, Essam al Zamil, appears in the film to explain that the reason for the shortage of dwellings is sky-high land prices, caused by the absence of taxes on unimproved property.
While the film doesn't explicitly explain the "Monopoly" of its title, a leading Saudi human rights activist said in an interview that it comes down to one thing: "All the land is owned de facto and de jure by the royal family," said Mohammed al Qathani, president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. He noted that only 22 percent of the families in Saudi Arabia own their own homes, and 78 percent must rent.
The video that perhaps cuts closest to the bone is "On the Other Side," an earlier production by Boqna. A copy of the video is still available on YouTube, though it can only be viewed through a reposting. It, too, begins with a Koranic verse to criticize the regime: "Surely, kings, when they enter a country, despoil it, and turn the highest of its people into its lowest. And thus they will do."
The opening scene is one of residential decay, accompanied by the verse, "The choice is yours: either refresh your nose with the fragrance of flowers" – the film then shows heaps of garbage – "or swim in one of these streams" – as the video shows sewage on a street. "Or maybe you would like to gladden your eyes with the sight of a unique building, whose wires have turned into trees, woven intricately to hug the post and the walls."
The narration savages the princes of the realm, asking viewers, "Did you know that the funds that went into building this neighborhood are less than what it costs to build a palace for one prince, and what is allocated for its services is less than one-fifth what is spent to maintain a prince's palace?"
The criticism, while harsh, seems unlikely to have an immediate impact.
"There is no urgency among the people," says Jamal Khashoggi, a former newspaper editor who is now organizing an all-news television channel. "The people in Saudi Arabia who are asking for a more modern concept of the monarchy is only a small elite. There is no widespread movement...The concept of rights is not very strong."
Still, it would appear that those in power are aware – and unhappy – with the criticism.
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