Whatever Happened to Fahad Albutairi, the "Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia"?

Fahad Albutairi - Publicity - P 2018
Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Film Festival

The disappearance of Albutairi — a rising name who had already caught Hollywood's eye and looked set to become part of Saudi's cultural reforms — has recently been brought into the spotlight.

When Saudi Arabia first revealed it was lifting a 35-year ban on cinemas back in December 2017, the news sparked a wave of excitement both from inside the strict Islamic kingdom and around the world.

International cinema chains clambered to announce their investment plans (AMC doing so the very same day), while local talent saw an opportunity to finally be part of a nascent film industry they could call their own.

One of those who many saw as a name who could help fly a flag for Saudi creativity was Fahad Albutairi, a young local stand-up, once dubbed the "Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia" and someone who had already amassed a huge online following, even catching the eye of Hollywood.

With cinemas and public events mostly banned in Saudi, young creatives (and the country has one of the youngest populations with more than 60 percent under 30) had turned to YouTube to express themselves. As such, the country’s vlogging stars were among the most popular in the Arabic speaking world, many with millions of followers.

Albutairi was among those.

Already a rising name on the comedy circuit, having started out while a student at Austin’s University of Texas and later debuting as the opening act for The Axil of Evil tour in 2008, in 2010, together with a group of friends, he started the YouTube comedy sketch show La Yekthar (which loosely translates as "Zip It"). The show broke barriers, poking fun at Saudi’s sociopolitical issues and the problems faced by its youth through a number of different characters, and quickly attracted a giant following, hitting more than 100 million views. Google soon signed it up as one of its partner channels from its base in Dubai.

While many might assume that any criticism of society would be strictly forbidden in Saudi — especially criticism that touches on issues such as corruption and unemployment — La Yekthar seemed to shirk the norm.

In fact, speaking to this journalist six years ago for Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, Albutairi claimed that they actually were given encouragement, once meeting the then-Saudi crown prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. “We chilled with him,” he said back in 2013. “The number two guy in the whole country, well, he’s a fan. He watched a lot of the YouTube shows we produce.”

Following La Yekthar’s success, Albutairi’s star rose away from home soil. He was approached about auditioning for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel but was later told they wanted a different “cultural background” for the character. The role was that of the bellboy, which eventually went to Tony Revolori, but Albuteiri said it was “amazing” simply to have been considered at all.

Just a year later, however, he starred as one of the leads in From A to B, the road-trip comedy from Emirati director Ali F. Mostafa. The film — backed by Image Nation Abu Dhabi — opened the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014. While it may not have set the world alight, it became a box office hit in the U.A.E.

More ground would be broken in early 2016, when Albutairi became the first Saudi stand-up comedian to perform at the Laugh Factory, appearing on the same bill as Maz Jobrani, Tony Rock, Steve Hofstetter and others at its Hollywood branch.

A year later, with a new, seemingly reformist crown prince in office in Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi looking like it was making bold, forward-thinking moves both at home and abroad, the cinema ban was lifted. Surely Albutairi was set be part of the country’s cultural revolution?

“We’d really like to represent Saudis in general in a very bright light,” Albutairi said in 2013.

In May 2018, this looked like it was slowly becoming reality.

During Saudi Arabia’s first-ever attendance at the Cannes Film Festival, its government-owned pan-Arab satellite TV giant MBC’s drama and film arm 03 Productions unveiled a new partnership with Image Nation Abu Dhabi on a slate of four films. One of these, Love Above the Law, a comedy about a middle-class Saudi man who marries a rural girl, was being written by Albutairi.

A great deal has changed since May, with the Khashoggi scandal forcing much of the world to revaluate its opinions of Saudi Arabian policy, supposed reforms and its de facto leader bin Salman. Hollywood, which courted the crown prince during a visit in April, has also looked to pull back dramatically, Endeavour saying it was withdrawing from a $400 million investment deal with Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund.

Sadly it seems a great deal has changed for Albutairi too.

In an article published in October, The New York Times reported that he’d been arrested while working in Jordan in March — predating the Cannes announcement — and “handcuffed, blindfolded and put onto a plane for Saudi Arabia.”

Around the same time, Albutairi’s wife, the prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul — who was famously jailed in 2014 for 73 days after trying to drive her car into Saudi Arabia — was also seized, stopped while on the highway in the U.A.E. and put on a private jet to Saudi. She was imprisoned for several days, but in May was detained again, one of a number of female driving activists locked up in a wave of arrests.

News about Albutairi is scarce and contradictory, although The Hollywood Reporter understands Love Above the Law hasn’t moved since being announced last May (although it's still in development). His hugely popular Twitter and Instagram profiles have been deleted, with a source telling THR that this was "ordered" by Saudi authorities, as was him not talking to the media. Another source claimed that he was actually forced by authorities to divorce al-Hathloul, who – according to her sisters, writing recently in The New York Times — still remains in prison, despite the driving ban for women having being lifted in June.

One insider actually refutes The New York Times' assertions that Albuteiri was arrested, claiming that he was “detained for questioning” while in Jordan and returned of his own volition to Saudi Arabia, where he currently resides. Another source says he's actually "doing good," although attempts by THR to contact him have proved fruitless. 

In any case, the silencing of this once prominent creative voice has now been put in the international spotlight thanks to a thread by writer and producer Kirk Rudell that went viral earlier this month.

In a series of posts, Rudell explained that he was introduced to the comic when looking for an Arabic speaker for a small part on American Dad!, and got to know both Albutairi and his wife while they were in Los Angeles. He asked the likes of Trevor Noah — of whom they were fans — to further highlight their plight, and urged the U.S. to not take payoffs from Saudi Arabia and overlook human rights abuses.

“They weren’t trying to be revolutionaries, or martyrs,” Rudell wrote. “They were just young, creative people, trying to make stuff and share the same fundamental rights.”