Ali al-Omari, the chairman of TV channel 4Shbab and a talk-show personality, is one of many prominent religious media figures swept up in Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s wide-ranging crackdown against dissent. He faces at least 30 terrorism-related charges, including "forming a terrorist youth organization," and a potential death sentence.
Al-Omari was detained either on September 9 or September 10, 2017, according to Reuters and the Saudi human rights-focused Twitter account “prisoners of conscience.” CPJ has not determined what person or organization is behind the Twitter account.
Ali al-Omari was the chairman for the TV channel 4Shbab, a channel that The New York Times and the Guardian reported was started in 2009 by an Egyptian entrepreneur as an Islamic version of MTV. Al-Omari’s personal website lists him as the chairman of the channel, as does a 2016 report in the Saudi newspaper Okaz, and Al-Jazeera reported in September 2018 that al-Omari had directed the channel.
Videos on 4Shbab’s YouTube channel indicate that since at least mid-2017, it adopted talk show-style programming focused on religious and cultural issues, according to a CPJ review of the content. Videos of al-Omari feature him giving lectures or conducting interviews in a talk show format. Al-Omari also regularly posted clips of his speeches and talk show discussions on his personal YouTube channel, which has nearly 800,000 page views and is linked to 4Shbab’s YouTube channel, opining on topics such as applying religion in daily life and the Syrian revolution. According to a 2013 Reuters report, Saudi Arabia is the biggest per capita user of YouTube in the world, and young Saudis in particular use the platform to access content ranging from religious to satirical and to discuss social issues not covered in the kingdom’s traditional media outlets.
Al-Omari also published articles on his own website on topics ranging from religious issues to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey.
Al-Qst quoted a press release issued September 11, 2017, from the Saudi Presidency of State Security, a government entity that acts as an umbrella for the kingdom’s counter-terrorism, intelligence, and security forces, as saying that an unspecified number of unnamed suspects were arrested for their "espionage activities" and for "working for foreign agencies against the security, interests, way of life, resources and communal peace of the kingdom with the aim of stirring up dissent and damaging the fabric of society." The article did not mention Al-Omari by name but included a photo of him among other Saudi religious and public figures who had been detained around the same time as al-Omari’s reported detention.
In September 2018, The Wall Street Journal and the Qatari outlet Al-Arabi al-Jadeed reported that Saudi authorities had begun trying al-Omari in a specialized criminal court on at least 30 terrorism-related charges, including "forming a terrorist youth organization." Both outlets also reported that Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor was seeking the death penalty against al-Omari.
Middle East Eye reported May 21, 2019, that al-Omari was one of three defendants who had been sentenced to death by a Saudi court, but Al-Qst director Yahya Assiri denied this in a tweet, saying that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty against the three but that no sentence had been handed down.
According to Assiri, the trial was ongoing as of May 2019. CPJ could not determine the status of the trial, nor of al-Omari’s health, in late 2019.
CPJ emailed the spokesman for the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., October 3 requesting information about al-Omari and other journalists detained in Saudi Arabia, including on where they are being held, any charges against them, and their current health statuses. The spokesman told CPJ via email the same day that he was looking at the questions and would follow up if the embassy had comment.