CPJ did not include al-Omari in its 2017 prison census because it could not confirm his work as a journalist at the time. Al-Omari's arrest came as authorities under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began a wave of arrests of perceived dissidents, including journalists, academics, religious figures and activists, that has continued until now and has targeted those who were previously critical of the Saudi government, as well as independent thinkers and writers who did not publicly state their support for the crown prince or his policies.
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 channel. Videos of al-Omari feature prominently on the 4Shbab's YouTube channel, 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 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 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 is seeking the death penalty against al-Omari.
CPJ could not confirm where al-Omari is being detained. The Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not reply to an email seeking comment on the charges against al-Omari, where he is being held, or his health.