How a blonde American kid rose to stardom in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: A 25-year-old American has taken Saudi Arabia by storm with his YouTube videos.

One of the Arab world’s most improbable celebrities, Joshua Van Alstine better known by his web name, Abu Mateb, is an American from Dallas who speaks Saudi-­accented Arabi, wears traditional Arabian robes and has a huge fan following in the Kingdom.

Born a Muslim to a Turkish mother and an American father who is an Air Force enlisted airman, Joshua spent most of his life between Turkey and the United States.

However, it was during his time at a college near Dallas that the 25-year-old started making YouTube videos mixing comedy and commentary on topics like Saudi hand gestures and sometimes even more serious issues such as defending Saudi Arabia against criticism of human rights abuses and anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. All his videos had one thing in common — the Saudi flag in the background.

Although, Van Alstine did not have many viewers in Dallas he soon caught the attention of the kingdom’s rulers and in May 2013, he received an email from the Saudi leadership asking whether he would consider moving to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital.

Speaking about his journey to stardom, Von Alstine goes back to his time in San Antonio shortly after 9/11, when he was still in school.

“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.”

However, all that changed after he made some Saudi friends at the University of North Texas and started picking up Arabic and the distinctive Saudi dialect. It was at this time in 2011 that he made his first video in his parent’s basement, challenging Westerners to seek a better understanding of Islam. He posted it on YouTube.

Later he decided to make a less serious video about his experience hanging out with Saudis. The video was mostly viewed by the Saudi students on campus, who shared it on Twitter.  It eventually made its way to the region’s most vibrant social media landscapes.

For the Saudis it was something they had never seen before; a blonde American speaking Arabic and making videos on Saudi culture. The Saudi leadership, recognising Joshua’s popularity, invited him to move to Riyadh in May 2013.

Van Alstins accepted this invitation he received via email and his arrival in Riyadh marked his first ever visit to an Arab country.

“This whole thing has been wild. Really crazy,” said Van Alstine, whose videos — some with more than 1 million views — also landed him on one of the Middle East’s most widely watched television channels. Last week, he was recruited by Qatar state television to help cover the country’s National Day celebrations.

“I was anonymous at home and like some kind of star in Saudi”, he added.

Since he was on a royal-sponsored visit, Van Alstine was added to the mourning events for the death of Crown Prince Nayef in June 2012. There, he joined the royal delegation to pray in Makkah and was part of a gathering with senior princes and others at a palace in Jeddah.

To pay homage to his sponsors, Van Alstine adopted the name Abu Mateb, a nickname of then Saudi King Abdullah.

On his return to the United States, he continued posting videos on his YouTube channel, Americanbadu or the American Bedouin. His most viewed video has over a million views.

In May 2013, Van Alstine accepted a job offer from the Saudi Ministry of Education to help develop a new TV channel. On his stay in Riyadh, he said, “I arrived as a dopey American and then out-Arabised the Arabs,” he said.

Ibraheem Alkhirallah, creative director at the Riyadh-based video production company Telfaz, featured Van Alstine on the company’s most popular show and has been watched more than 1.8 million times.

“They say that life is unpredictable,” he said. “If anyone disagrees, I have the perfect answer. Take a look at me.”


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