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'Monopoly': A YouTube sensation knocks Saudi royalty

'Monopoly,' one of several new critical videos, derides Saudi Arabia's lack of housing as a groom-to-be shows viewers the van where he envisions living with his new wife.

By Roy GutmanMcClatchy Newspapers / December 6, 2011

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.

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

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.

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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.

A jab at the king

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.

'Monopoly': A satire about housing shortages

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.

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