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The blond American star of Saudi YouTube

Say the name Joshua Van Alstine in Riyadh and the response is likely to be a blank stare.

Joshua Van Alstine became a celebrity in Saudi Arabia with YouTube videos.
Joshua Van Alstine became a celebrity in Saudi Arabia with YouTube videos.Read more

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Say the name Joshua Van Alstine in Riyadh and the response is likely to be a blank stare.

But mention his Web-born persona, Abu Muteb, and chances are you'll get a nod or smile for the baby-faced American military brat. He slings Saudi-accented Arabic, wears traditional robes, mixes comedy and commentary, and may be one of the Arab world's most improbable celebrities.

The Internet age is awash with tales of head-scratching stardom and viral oddities. Yet Van Alstine is a niche within a niche. He rode a wave of YouTube videos that were not even a blip at the college he attended near Dallas but that were monster hits in Saudi Arabia and that eventually caught the attention of the kingdom's rulers.

Then an email arrived in May 2013 from the Saudi leadership, asking whether he would consider moving to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital. He accepted.

"This whole thing has been wild. Really crazy," said Van Alstine, whose videos - some with million-plus views - also landed him on one of the Middle East's most widely watched TV channels. Last week, Qatar state television recruited him to help cover National Day celebrations.

"Hang on a sec," he apologized during a phone interview from Qatar's capital, Doha.

"OK, I'm back. I had to take some photos with fans. Like I was saying, it's nuts, dude. It's sometimes hard to take it all in."

To get the full measure of Van Alstine's journey, it's important to know what the 25-year-old is not. He's not a native Arabic speaker. He's not of Arab descent. He had never set foot in an Arab country until a few years ago.

But he is a Muslim, raised in the religion of his Turkish-born mother as the family bounced between Turkey and the United States with deployments of his father, an Air Force enlisted airman who rose to the rank of chief master sergeant.

One stop was in San Antonio, shortly after 9/11.

"For the first time, I felt I wasn't accepted," he said. "Here I was, a white Muslim in America. Many Americans rejected me because I was Muslim. The Muslims in America - Arabs, Pakistanis, and others - rejected me because they saw me as 'just American.' I felt really isolated."

That was until he fell into a clique of Saudi students at the University of North Texas, in Denton. He started picking up Arabic and the distinctive Saudi dialect. One day in late 2011, from his parents' basement, he decided to make a video challenging Westerners to seek a better understanding of Islam. He posted it on YouTube.

Then he made another one with a lighter touch about hanging with the Saudis. And another.

No one noticed on campus except the Saudi students. They tweeted it. And, back in the kingdom, the posts went into the meme-osphere in one of the region's most vibrant social-media landscapes.

Here was something entirely new: A blond American winging it in Arabic with a Saudi flavor.

In early 2012, someone from the Saudi royal court tracked down Van Alstine on Facebook and invited him to visit. He arrived just after the death of the No. 2 to the throne, Crown Prince Nayef, in June 2012. Because he was on a royal-sponsored visit, Van Alstine was added to the mourning events.

He joined the royal delegation to pray in Mecca and was part of a gathering with senior princes and others at a palace in Jiddah. Among them was the future Saudi king, Salman. Van Alstine kissed him on the forehead, a traditional Gulf Arab greeting between men.

Van Alstine also paid homage to his sponsors by taking the nom-de-Web Abu Muteb, a nickname of then Saudi King Abdullah.

Van Alstine returned to the United States and kept cranking out videos for his YouTube channel, Americanbadu, or the American Bedouin. In May 2013, the Saudi Ministry of Education emailed him a job offer to help develop a new TV channel. He packed his bags.

To be sure, Van Alstine keeps it tame. The Saudi social media space is packed, but not with anyone who crosses red lines such as criticism of Saudi rulers or policies. Offenders are quickly silenced and sometimes jailed.

His comedy keeps to the safe ground of mild observations: the pidgin Arabic of many South Asian shopkeepers or the bewildering array of Saudi hand gestures. He can also get preachy and more than a shade propagandist. In several posts, with a Saudi flag in the background, he rails against Muslim-bashers in the West and defends Saudi Arabia against criticism of rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent.

"I don't feel conflicted at all," he said, saying he does not overlay Western values on local standards. It's a bit of self-preservation that has earned him some detractors.

His father, Brian, said he was always aware of his son's affinity for the spotlight. "But I've also tried to temper his enthusiasm with the reality that not everyone will understand or tolerate his point of view the same way," he added.

Joshua Van Alstine's sweet spot, however, is his natural state: a semi-goofy American who favors traditional robes and head scarves and models himself as a Bedouin soul mate.

"He's weird, but in a likable way," said Ibraheem Alkhirallah, creative director at the Riyadh video production company Telfaz, which featured Van Alstine in one of its most popular Web shows, Temsahly ("Crocodile"), starring a sock-puppet reptile that interviews Arab celebrities and has adventures around the region.

The centerpiece of the Telfaz awards wall is a YouTube plaque for the first 1 million subscribers to Temsahly - among the show's more than 100 million views. The Van Alstine episode has been seen more than 1.8 million times.

It's another glimpse into one of the Middle East's fastest-evolving online cultures. Saudi Arabia ranks among the top in the world for per capita use of sites such as Twitter and the Whats-App chat network. Millions follow YouTube comedy shows such as Temsahly, and the satirical La Yekthar Show.

"Saudi society can be a lonely place," said Fahad Albutairi, the comedian who created La Yektar, which roughly translates as "put a lid on it. . . . Liberals and conservatives, men and women, wealthy and struggling - all had really no way to really connect. With social media, we can tear off the masks and tear up the stereotypes."

Van Altsine's image really took off when he appeared in 2013 on a 15-episode series on Middle East Broadcasting, during the super prime-time viewing season of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. In the show, Van Alstine is living with a traditional Saudi family.