WWE and Saudi Arabia: A Look at This Controversial Relationship

Last March WWE and the Saudi General Sports Authority announced the start of a 10-year partnership as part of Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ campaign, a public relations and economic programme aimed at boosting and repairing the image of the Saudi government on the world stage.

Next week, on June 7th, WWE will return again to Saudi Arabia for ‘Super Showdown’ which they are touting as “being as good as, or better than, Wrestlemania“. This event will feature The Undertaker taking on Goldberg in what many have called a once dream match.

Several superstars will miss this trip, including Daniel Bryan who has expressed his desire not to travel back to Saudi Arabia after feeling uncomfortable there previously. Also not returning will be Kevin Owens as well as Sami Zayn due to his Syrian heritage and Aleister Black because of his religious iconography on his tattoos.

The first event under this deal, the Greatest Royal Rumble, was held in April 2018 and was not met without controversy. First of all came the propaganda throughout the broadcast which attempted to signify an open and diverse Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the new Crown Prince, a video which received staunch criticism back in the west.

In addition to this, women were unable to compete at the event due to the strict Sharia applications within the country. So much so that WWE ran an advert during the GRR which featured female superstars which the Saudi Authority publicly apologised for, for showing “indecent” women.

The money WWE is thought to have made from these events in Saudi Arabia is rather staggering. Although they do not publicly reveal the amount received from each event, estimates can be easily made through analysing the quarterly financial reports WWE release. The Saudi deal is included within the “other” figures of the quarterly reports alongside other programming such as Total Divas, WWE Studios etc and Q2 and 4 of 2018 saw huge spikes of financial growth. It can be estimated that for the Greatest Royal Rumble WWE received around $50- 55 Million and tens of millions more for Crown Jewel. The second event is harder to estimate due to the revenue from the Australian Super Show falling in the same quarter.

Surprisingly WWE’s deal with Saudi went more or less under the radar until their second event, Crown Jewel, came along and the tide suddenly turned. In the weeks leading up to the event Saudi Arabia was in the middle of a huge international incident when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was lured from his home to a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi was then assassinated and dismembered at the order of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

When this information came out several high profile businesses withdrew their support from the Saudi investment summit known as FII including the Virgin Group, Uber, Google and Endeavour, the parent company of UFC. However, WWE’s deal with Saudi Arabia remained, and so became a focal point of a lot of media attention; this included a piece by HBO’s John Oliver, who criticised WWE’s continued support in this video:

It was not just the media who were against WWE pushing forward with this event, the fans themselves rebelled booing any mention of the event of WWE TV, including aimed directly at The Undertaker, something which in 2019 is a very hard feat to accomplish. Superstars such as Daniel Bryan, John Cena refused to take part despite being advertised and even Roman Reigns had said he would not return prior to his battle with Leukaemia.  

The backlash before the event even began was immense; four U.S senators, including Senator Chris Murphy of WWE’s home state of Connecticut urged WWE to reconsider and said that the brutual murder of Khashoggi “should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia”.

However, during the company’s Q3 earnings report WWE announced that it would continue to hold the Crown Jewel event despite the huge pressure being placed upon them by outside forces. During the 3 conference call many questions were asked of the board regarding the event and they refused to answer any of them, pointing instead to the statement within the report.

Why is Saudi Arabia so controversial?

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi is the tip of the iceberg of the controversies surrounding Saudi Arabia and was simply at the forefront of the press at the time WWE were planning the Crown Jewel event.

It is stated by Human Rights Watch that Saudi Arabia is responsible for a plethora of human rights abuses stemming back long before the current Crown Prince through to today and are constantly ranked among the most repressive nations in the world for rights and civil liberties.

HRW reports that in 2018 the Saudi regime detained peaceful activists for no reason and without trial for long periods, many of these dissidents have been imprisoned for criticising  the government or advocating for reforms. In 2018, 148 people were executed, 59 for non-violent drug offences. Campaigns of unlawful airstrikes continue and repression of women and homosexuals and other minorities continues.

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. 

In the first few months of 2019 alone a mass execution of 37 men took place on April 23rd throughout the country. The majority of those executed were from Shia communities and were convicted following unfair and “sham” trials. These executions have received international condemnation in the weeks following.

Just two weeks before WWE head back over to Saudi the regime has received yet more international condemnation after arresting 3 scholars, These arrests and executions have been condemned by the UN, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.

One thing must be remembered here, it is not the fault of the Saudi fans, they deserve to see their favourite stars compete. However, Saudi Arabia are not bringing the WWE to their country for the fans, they are bringing them over as part of a propaganda campaign for Vision 2030. If it was for fan experience, the floor of the stadiums at these shows would not be reserved for the royals and be half empty as a result.

WWE are not going to cancel these shows unless they are ordered to do so by the United States government following a serious international incident. If the Jamal Khashoggi assassination did not tip the scales then at this rate nothing will. Since the Saudi deal WWE’s engagement has been down across the board, whether it’s related we’ll never know but one thing is for sure – WWE fans and wrestling journalists alike are disappointed by this deal.

This week, in the lead up to Super Showdown Roman Reigns has said on record that he believes WWE is helping to promote good in the region and that is why he is continuing to travel with the company when many of his fellow superstars are not.

Whether WWE truly believes this to be the case or not we do not know, but it is rather telling that the company will not say the name of the host country in the promotional videos. WWE is well aware of the PR disaster this deal has been but there is no chance of it stopping now.

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