WWE and Saudi Arabia – A look at this problematic relationship

In March 2018, WWE and the Saudi General Sports Authority announced the start of a 10 -year partnership as part of Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ program, a project to boost and reform Saudi’s social and economic output. The Greatest Royal Rumble event, held in April 2018, marked the start of this relationship; Vince McMahon said of the deal that “Our partnership with the Saudi General Authority reflects a long-term commitment to present WWE’s world-class entertainment to a global audience on a grander scale than ever before”.

It has been reported by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that WWE stands to earn $45 million a year from this deal – meaning a staggering $450 million from the Saudi government. With the second event of this partnership, Crown Jewel, coming up in only a few weeks it would seem as though it is a good time to take a brief look at why this partnership is much more sinister and disappointing than WWE are portraying it to be.

This deal has been made under the watchful eye of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been said to be somewhat of a moderniser in Saudi, whilst this may well be true when help in comparison to his predecessors he is far removed from any western notion of civility.

The new Crown Prince who took office in 2017 has been praised by some in the West for allowing women to drive, for opening his country up to foreign forms of entertainment and for fighting back against decades of failures to modernise. However, throughout 2017 and 2018 there has been a sustained reporting of human rights abuses by the nation which WWE now wishes to cosy up to. Human Rights Watch reports that in 2017 Saudi Arabia carried out 146 executions, of which 59 were for non-violent drug offences; they further report that there is a continued repression and discrimination against women and minorities.

The decision by the Crown Prince in 2017 to lift the ban on women driving was met with Global applause – making headline news around the world. Despite this, Saudi Arabia is still the most gender-segregated nation in the world and women still face an uphill battle in the country. They have an inability to make major decisions without permission from their male Guardian, the Saudi dress code is also of strict Islamic interpretation and reportedly leads to harassment from the religious police if not followed to the strictest degree.

It is not just women who are subject to high levels of discrimination, under sharia as interpreted in Saudi, consensual homosexual sex remains punishable by death. Between 2011 and 2012 the government is said to have arrested over 260 people for the crime of homosexuality. In 2014 a 24-year old Saudi man was given 450 lashes for using Twitter to arrange dates with men. The US State Department in its yearly review lists a number of serious human rights abuses including unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary arrest, human trafficking, restrictions on speech and political activity and the inability to choose their government.

In just the past few days, only a matter of weeks before WWE holds the Crown Jewel event, Saudi Arabia is embroiled in a serious diplomatic incident with the disappearance of a journalist critical of the Saudi regime. The Saudi government is accused of luring journalist Jamal Khashoggi from his home in Virginia to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul which he entered on October 2nd and never left, according to US intelligence. The Saudi government refute these allegations, however, this story has made international news and has attracted intervention from the US president.

With this kind of allegation looming over the Saudi government, it is hard to see how WWE can in good conscience continue with the Crown Jewel PPV without seeming cruel, callous and uncaring. However, this is the WWE – they will simply gloss over all of these facts, as they have done for the past year, and move on as if nothing has happened. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the home state of WWE, has said that these allegations against the Saudi government “should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia”.

In recent days numerous businesses have announced a withdrawal of investments or business with Saudi Arabia, including $1 billion from the Virgin Group and CNBC no longer participating in the Future Investment Initiative later this month.

Only time will tell if this will reverberate down to WWE itself. One can only hope that at the very least WWE resists running further propaganda videos, highlighting how “reformist” the Crown Prince is – it would simply be a slap in the face to all those who continue to be oppressed and to the life of Jamal Khashoggi.

UFC’s parent company Endeavour have further announced their intention to withdraw $400 million of investments from Saudi Arabia. They are just one of a long-list of companies continuing to pull-out of the nation in recent days.

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