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Netflix Show Earns Its Saudi Creator Plaudits, and a Prison Sentence

Netflix Show Earns Its Saudi Creator Plaudits, and a Prison Sentence

From the outside, the past few years looked like the peak of Abdulaziz Almuzaini’s career.

As the head of an animation studio in Saudi Arabia, he signed a five-year deal with Netflix in 2020. A sardonic cartoon franchise that he helped create, “Masameer,” likened to a Saudi version of “South Park,” was soon streaming to audiences around the world. And as the conservative Islamic kingdom loosened up, Mr. Almuzaini was being publicly celebrated — as recently as a few months ago — as one of the homegrown talents shaping its nascent entertainment industry.

Behind the scenes, though, he was on trial in an opaque national security court, as Saudi prosecutors — who accused him of promoting extremism through the cartoon series and social media posts — sought to ensure that he would spend the rest of his life in prison or under a travel ban.

Mr. Almuzaini, a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen and father of three, recently described his plight in a video pleading for the Saudi leadership to intervene, saying that he was awaiting a final ruling from the kingdom’s Supreme Court.

“I might bear the consequences of what happens after this, and I’m ready,” he said in the 18-minute video, which he said he was filming at his home in the Saudi capital.

The video was published on his social media accounts late last month and deleted the same day. In it, Mr. Almuzaini, sporting a black beard graying around the edges, spoke in front of a wall covered with colorful sticky notes.

“I haven’t committed a single crime in the kingdom” he said. “I haven’t even run a red light.”

The Saudi authorities have imprisoned hundreds of citizens during a crackdown on dissent that began in 2017. Still, Mr. Almuzaini’s video was shocking because he had appeared to be squarely in the good graces of Saudi leadership — attending government-hosted events and receiving glowing write-ups in state-backed media outlets. Despite facing grave charges, he was not jailed, although he was barred from leaving the country.

His story is the starkest example yet of the duality of the new Saudi Arabia, as the 38-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman opens up the kingdom socially while deepening political repression. In Mr. Almuzaini’s case, those two trends have played out simultaneously, exposing a profound dissonance at the heart of the kingdom’s transformation.

The New York Times was able to verify that a trial had taken place at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, where Mr. Almuzaini was convicted last year of supporting extremist ideology, among other charges. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, followed by a 13-year ban on traveling outside Saudi Arabia. An appellate court upheld his conviction and prison sentence this year, while lengthening his travel ban to 30 years.

The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Almuzaini did not respond to a request for an interview. It was not possible to reach his lawyer. Netflix declined to comment.

The American State Department said in a statement to The Times that it had been monitoring Mr. Almuzaini’s case, adding, “Our embassies and consulates seek to ensure U.S. citizens overseas are subject to a fair and transparent legal process.”

The prosecutors’ accusations were tied to television content Mr. Almuzaini produced and social media posts he wrote a decade ago, when the space for public discourse in Saudi Arabia was less restricted.

“I never thought it would reach this phase,” Mr. Almuzaini said in his video. “Especially given that there are people and officials — whom I’m grateful to but won’t mention — who reassured me that the issue didn’t deserve all this and to be patient and it will be resolved bureaucratically.”

Since Prince Mohammed’s rise to power, which began in 2015, he has significantly loosened social restrictions in Saudi Arabia — ending a ban on women driving, defanging the religious police and investing heavily in new sectors such as entertainment and tourism. He has also presided over a widespread political crackdown, which reached a peak with the 2018 murder of the Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi — a columnist who wrote critically about the monarchy in The Washington Post — by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

Prince Mohammed’s advisers and supporters sometimes argue that an iron fist is necessary to push the state through a time of tumultuous change. But Mr. Almuzaini’s case, among others like his, raises questions about how the kingdom intends to nurture art, creativity and entrepreneurship — key components of the prince’s plans — while shrinking freedom of expression.

“Masameer” got its start on YouTube more than a decade ago when movie theaters were effectively banned and filmmaking was largely an underground effort.

Through deliberately absurd plots, the show — goofy, dark and sometimes raunchy — critiques aspects of life in the conservative Islamic kingdom.

In an interview in 2017, a co-creator of the show, Malik Nejer, said, “We try to mock many social issues from the way the government functions to the way certain beliefs are spread through society.”

“We even make fun of ourselves sometimes,” he added.

From its early years, the ideology of “Masameer” was socially liberal, with story lines that ridiculed classism, discrimination against women and the religious restrictions that heavily defined life in Saudi Arabia at the time.

During the country’s rapid transformation under Prince Mohammed, the government appeared to embrace Mr. Almuzaini’s work, even as he faced trial at the same time.

Last year, after he had been convicted and sentenced, he attended a gala held by state entities where officials feted Saudi creators. Since 2021, Riyadh Boulevard — a government-run entertainment complex in the kingdom’s capital — has hosted events and theme park rides designed around “Masameer” characters. And a couple of months ago, as he continued to appeal the rulings, Mr. Almuzaini was hosted on a Saudi state television show to discuss the kingdom’s film industry.

The episode celebrated the spread of Saudi content to international audiences, with a voice-over declaring, “We will tell our own stories, ourselves, and export them with our narrative to the world.”

Multiple television series and two movies from the “Masameer” franchise are still available on Netflix in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Almuzaini’s animation studio, Myrkott, is part way through a five-year partnership with the streaming service, signed in 2020.

According to Mr. Almuzaini’s video, some of the accusations he faced were related to an episode of “Masameer County,” a spinoff Netflix-hosted show released in 2021.

That episode tells the story of a wealthy, coddled and lonely man named Bandar who develops a late-night craving for ice cream. He goes in search of it, only to get beaten up, dumped in the desert and taken in by a band of jihadists. He joins the Islamic State terrorist group, and at the episode’s conclusion, a helicopter he is traveling in explodes, catapulting him into a dreamlike scene where he finds a palatial ice cream cone.

The episode is openly derogatory toward the jihadists, portraying the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in 2019, as a sleazy man with a harem of women.

But Saudi officials pursuing Mr. Almuzaini interpreted it to mean that “if you went and fought with the Islamic State and you died like Bandar in the ice cream episode, you’ll go to heaven,” Mr. Almuzaini said in his video. “I don’t know how they read it this way.”

In the video, Mr. Almuzaini pleaded for Prince Mohammed’s aid, saying that he had sought to resolve his case through many avenues before going public.

Mr. Almuzaini’s problems started in 2021, when an official in a Saudi media authority began to investigate him and his animation studio over regulatory violations that included “supporting terrorism and homosexuality,” Mr. Almuzaini said in the video.

What was initially a regulatory issue turned into a criminal trial. In addition to complaints about “Masameer” content, prosecutors referred to social media posts that Mr. Almuzaini had made from 2010 to 2014, he said in the video.

Mr. Almuzaini concluded the video by saying that he had recently had to close his animation studio and let its employees go. But he still believes in the kingdom’s “wise government” and is confident he will obtain his rights, he added.

After the video was deleted, Mr. Almuzaini appeared to remain free. He continued to post on social media, including on Tuesday.

In a second video, posted on Sunday, Mr. Almuzaini emphasized his loyalty to the Saudi kingdom and its rulers, adding that he did not want to go anywhere else.

“I’ll live in this country,” he said. “And god willing, I’ll die in this country.”

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