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YouTube's Disruptive Effect on the Saudi Mediasphere

The second speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Omar Daoudi, whose interest is in the Saudi government's reactions to YouTube content. This work covers the period of time between 2010 and 2016, after which there were also considerable changes in government policy.

Saudi Arabia's media system is closed to unauthorised companies; the state controls the media, and indeed by proxy also has substantial influence over pan-Arab media companies. This is also in line with the overall structure of the Saudi government itself, where the king continues to exercise nearly absolute power. However, at the same time senior princes in the royal family have also carved out their own power bases, by taking on the leadership of specific arms of the government (such as the national guard, the home office, the ministry of information, and other key institutions).

YouTube is a challenge to this media system. While Saudi media do also post their content on YouTube, and while there is also user-generated content from or about Saudi Arabia, a more important type of content in the present context is professionally-generated but non-government-affiliated material. Not least because of this content, Saudi Arabia has at times been the largest user, per capita, of YouTube content in the world.

Omar conducted some ten semi-structured online interviews with major professional Saudi YouTube content producers, as well as focus groups with Saudi audiences. Their work exists in a legal grey area, and YouTube professionals are themselves unclear about whether Saudi media regulations apply to them. This uncertainty itself may well have helped the industry to developed, but also means that government has the opportunity to threaten individual producers in order to bring them into line.

Therefore, there is a sense of self-regulation within this industry, following a 'common sense' of what the government will or will not police. However, the government has also blocked some content that has expressed views critical of the government, has sent notification letters to producers, and has even briefly imprisoned some YouTube content producers. Again, there is a question about which branch of government is responsible for this; the prince in charge of the home office, for instance, is seen as somewhat more conservative and may be behind such suppression.

There have also been some soft measures, however. Prince Mutaib Bin Abdullah, responsible for the National Guard, has visited one of the YouTube production houses, and this can be read as an attempt to bring their content in line with official policies in return for favours. There are also some regular meetings between YouTube producers and the information ministry.

Overall, then, the Saudi state remains the most powerful actor in the country; YouTube does not have a strong subversive function, but serves at least to some extent as a democratising tool in the field of soft news and entertainment content. This was more pronounced perhaps at the height of the Arab Spring, but the failure of this movement and the return of autocratic governance across many Arab states has also re-emboldened government control over this industry.

The content most critical of the Saudi government remains in user-generated content, meanwhile: the now well-established YouTube industry is likely to continue its self-regulation and self-censorship, because it now has too much established status capital to protect.