RIYADH (Reuters Life!) - Illegal stunts in cars, joyriding, bullying and political dissent -- video-sharing Web site YouTube has taken off in Saudi Arabia.
The site owned by search engine giant Google Inc has seen tens of thousands in the conservative Saudi kingdom upload and download a broad range of thrill-seeking, political and just downright bizarre video clips in a surge of expression.
Much of the material involves cars, an obsession among affluent youth who cannot go to cinemas, mix with unrelated women or even enter some shopping malls because of Islamic prohibitions by the authorities and religious scholars.
“Only in Saudi Arabia” shows two Saudi teenagers hanging from the doors of a moving car, causing difficulties for other motorists. The video received around 379,000 hits in a year.
“There are daily clips of cars ‘drifting’ in the streets of Riyadh,” says Saif, a 21-year-old university student referring to the current fad for performing stunts and joyriding.
“One recent popular video shows a luxurious Porsche and a BMW racing in Tahliya Street in Riyadh,” he added, referring to the plush avenue where men fill sidewalk cafes in the evening.
The government said last month it would impose heavy fines and jail sentences in an effort to combat the growing incidence of dangerous driving by thrill-seeking youths.
“Teenagers have nothing better to do. Most of them have the latest cars, they’ve got licenses, petrol is cheap and the streets are wide,” said Ayman, another university student.
“A lot of the videos circulated among young people focus on car racing, music and Saudis dancing inside their cars.”
He pointed to a fad for throwing eggs at women who refuse the advances of men who hassle them in the street for their telephone number -- that has also appeared on YouTube after Ayman caught it on his mobile phone camera.
School bullying has also shown up, such as one recent clip titled “Hisham gets beaten up BAD” and others provide a public service by drawing attention to health hazards.
Footage of a rat eating from a chicken shawarma sandwich in a restaurant received angry feedback from the public, although Saudi newspapers refrained from taking up the issue.
Saudi journalist Susan Al-Zawawi even found herself on YouTube after she took part in a Dutch documentary program on Saudi women. “I wanted to show how normal Saudis live, in a simple house with no house maids,” she says.
The clip showing the inside of her home proved popular, receiving 158,000 hits and 640 comments.
“In the past, many young people used the mobile camera and bluetooth technology to send and exchange those kind of clips, but their reach was limited,” said journalist Khalid Batarfi.
“Today, young net users want to bypass the traditional media. Like any young generation around the world, they are looking for a wider audience, so they turn to YouTube and other file sharing sites,” he said.
YouTube is also proving to be an outlet for political material. Footage of a prison officer beating prisoners appeared on Web sites this year, prompting condemnation from New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Saudi dissidents writing on satirical, opposition sites such as Arab Times (www.arabtimes.com) often refer to footage of public figures posted on YouTube.
Editing by Paul Casciato
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