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.
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.”