Deborah Amos /NPR
A comedy show, with government approval, takes place 80 miles outside Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
A comedy show, with government approval, takes place 80 miles outside Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Deborah Amos /NPR
So far, the street protests demanding political change in the Arab world have not reached Saudi Arabia — and most analysts agree that they're not likely to come.
The country has the largest economy in the region and plenty of oil wealth to cushion discontent. But in a place usually known for oil, camels and veiled women, add one more image of Saudi Arabia: stand-up comics. These young Saudis are taking on Egypt's protests as a source of material, far into the Saudi desert.
On a recent day, young Saudis drove 80 miles outside of the capital, past remote villages and Bedouin tents, to sit under the midday sun for a stand-up comedy festival.
As he waits to go onstage, the host of the show jokes about Saudis who usually don't show up anywhere on time.
"It's an act of God," says comedian Fahad Albutairi. "Ninety-five percent full, and it's 10 minutes before the show. It's not exactly typically Saudi, but OK."
Fahad Albutairi, 25, is a geologist and stand-up comedian.
Albutairi, 25, is a part-time comic and a full-time geologist. He warms up the crowd with comments on Egypt's unrest and the lack of coverage in the Saudi media.
"In light of recent events, I don't read the newspaper anymore," he says. "I'm on Twitter. I don't watch TV anymore — I'm on YouTube."
Albutairi says the youth-driven uprising has resonance with this audience.
"The news is so big, it's almost impossible to contain; you must have an opinion, otherwise you're not human. I'll be very honest with you. The issue in Egypt — it's all about the people; there are millions who agree on one thing," he says. "You got to listen to them."
This comedy show in the desert — approved by the government — is an example of an experiment in freedom of expression that began when King Abdullah came to power in 2005. But how far does it go? The Americans who are part of the show are not sure.
New York-based comedian Dean Obeidallah checked out his jokes with the organizers. One joke about looting at the Egyptian museum — OK. One about Iraqis fleeing Cairo for the safety of Baghdad — sure. And a joke about Saudi Arabia:
"I think I'll talk about how in Saudi, the only way you'll ever have protests is if there's a VIP section, because Saudis won't want it for regular protest," Obeidallah jokes. "It has to be VIP, VIP — it's around, sort of touching on it without getting into the details of the uprising."
The Saudi comics take on Egypt in a more direct way.
Ibraheem al Khairallah is the most daring of the Saudi comedians here. He delivers his jokes in English, heavily mixed with Arabic — and hits home with barbed remarks about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"Egypt — big problem," he begins. And then he jokes that Mubarak may soon visit the Saudi city of Jeddah, where Tunisia's now former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took refuge when street protesters ended his rule in January.
Deborah Amos /NPR
D.J. Tazlee performs with the comedians as part of the tour.
D.J. Tazlee performs with the comedians as part of the tour. Deborah Amos /NPR
Khairallah gets the biggest laughs when he says that Mubarak will have to travel around Jeddah on jet skis. It's a very local joke: In the past week, the Saudi port city has been hit with damaging floods. Saudi Facebook groups have expressed anger with an inept government response.
Onstage, Albutairi congratulates the audience for its appreciation: "Give yourself a round of applause. You get stand-up. You get jokes. Because a lot in Saudi, they don't get stand-up comedy irony. They think irony is something you do at the laundry."
Of course, this desert camp of young people — men and women enjoying an afternoon of entertainment — is far from the world of the conservative capital, where there are no movies or theaters. The real Saudi Arabia, says Albutairi, is somewhere in between.
"Saudi Arabia, right now, because of the population — they are so young — it's best represented by the youth themselves," Albutairi says. "So, if you meet enough young Saudis, you will get a better picture of Saudi Arabia."
The youth population there now represents the majority of the country.
"And we're changing things little by little, but we are changing, and it's happening — the youth is the future," Albutairi says from the stage — to whistles and cheers from the crowd.