A 25-year-old American has made a quite a name for himself in Saudi Arabia. In fact, in a really short period of time, he has become one of the most sought-after celebrities of the Arab world.
The name Joshua Van Alstine, or his online persona Abu Muteb, might not mean much to people in America, but if you mention it to people in Saudi Arabia, it will most likely bring a small smile of acknowledgement to their faces.
Van Alstine, who is a Muslim, appears on one of the major television networks in all the Middle East and makes frequent public appearances – much to the delight of his hundreds and thousands of fans.
He attended the University of Texas and rose to fame in the Gulf region through his YouTube videos, where he would appear dressed in traditional Saudi robes challenge the West to seek a better understanding of Islam.
Van Alstine’s mother was born in Turkey while his father was a U.S. Air Force pilot who eventually became chief master sergeant. His family kept bouncing between different places as a result of his dad’s deployment. However, when they settled in San Antonio shortly after the terror attacks of 9/11, Van Alstine came to a sad realization.
“For the first time, I felt I wasn’t accepted,” he told The Washington Post. “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.”
On one such day, he decided to make a video asking people to seek a better understanding of Islam and uploaded it on YouTube. It was followed by a much lighter video about hanging out with Saudis, which was followed by another clip.
Van Alstine’s videos, where he would try to rant in Arabic, did not get much attention on campus but they became widely popular in Saudi Arabia and its neighboring countries.
“I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding, right?’” he explained. “I was anonymous at home and like some kind of star in Saudi.”
In 2012, Saudi royal court invited the military brat to visit the kingdom. He not only attended the mourning events after the death of Crown Prince Nayef, but also joined the royal delegation to pray in Mecca.
He was also a part of a gathering with senior princes and others at a palace in Jeddah — including the future King Salman. Moreover, he paid homage to his sponsors by taking the nom-de-Web Abu Muteb, a nickname of King Abdullah, who died nearly a year ago, as his Web persona.
Van Alstine the returned to the United States and kept making videos for his YouTube channel Americanbadu. In May 2013, he accepted Saudi Ministry of Education’s job offer to help develop a new TV channel and moved to the country's capital city of Riyadh.
In a country like Saudi Arabia, where criticism of Saudi rulers or policies can end someone in jail or worse, the vlogger has to keep his comedy pretty tame. In some instances, his videos even get a little propagandist — especially the ones where he defended Saudi Arabia against accusations of human rights violations and abuses.
“I don’t feel conflicted at all,” the YouTuber asserted.
It does not seem that any of these claims have had any negative impact on his fan-base in the Gulf countries. In fact, Qatar state television recently recruited him to help cover the country’s National Day celebrations.
“I arrived as a dopey American and then out-Arabized the Arabs,” he concluded. “They say that life is unpredictable. If anyone disagrees, I have the perfect answer. Take a look at me.”
For now, Van Alstine is setting up shop in Doha and plans to resume his studies while seeking further opportunities.