On November 2nd, 2018, the people of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia witnessed the second ever World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Pay-Per-View event in their nation. However, the underlying narratives of the event span far past Brock Lesnar winning the vacated WWE Universal Championship, or AJ Styles retaining the WWE Championship against Samoa Joe.
Earlier in 2018, it was reported by wrestling insider, Dave Meltzer, of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, that WWE had agreed to a 10-year agreement with the Saudi Arabian Authority to host bi-annual events for $45 million per year. In other words, the Saudi Arabian Authority will pay the WWE $450 million dollars for shows over the next decade.
Even before the notorious Khashoggi incident, the Saudi Arabian shows were already subject to severe scrutiny. The first among many issues was a quite controversial one, especially for the company itself. Due to the strict conservative Islamic culture of Saudi Arabia, WWE was barred from not only having women’s matches at the show, but even airing commercials at the event featuring any female WWE Superstar.
But exactly that happened. During one of the show’s intermissions, a commercial for the next Pay-Per-View event accidentally aired in-stadium. The commercial featured a number of male WWE Superstars in their ring-attire, such as AJ Styles, and Big E Langston. However, the commercial also featured female WWE Stars Carmella and Sasha Banks, in their gear as well. A female wrestler’s athletic wear is obviously in conflict with what is socially acceptable women’s apparel in Saudi Arabia, where women appear in public fully covered in burkas. Upon the sight of the female superstars, the audience of the King Abdullah Sports City erupted with applause. General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia issued an official apology for the incident.
During the course of the show itself, the WWE appeared to be comfortable spouting Saudi propaganda. The commentators for the show often praised the newfound progressive nature of their host country, boasting about the newly-given right for women to drive. The primary motive for this was to promote progress within the nation, but alternatively could be perceived as a reminder of how archaic the laws are in Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabian Sports Authority may be eager to promote their progress, no women were permitted into the event without a male chaperone.
But, in what was one of the most blatantly politically-motivated points of the show, Ariya and Shawn Daivari, two Iranian wrestlers from Minneapolis, interrupt a promo, while proudly flying Iranian flags. After their characters went on an anti-Saudi tirade, they were subsequently sent fleeing by the new Saudi Arabian trainees originally highlighted in the segment. This story had the key narratives of antagonising and belittling Iran, while simultaneously building Saudi pride and nationalism. Many found this blatant attempt at anti-Iranian propaganda sickening, and inevitable with what the confrontational nature of middle-eastern politics would suggest. Anticipating a similar narrative, Syrian-Canadian wrestler Sami Zayn refused to attend or participate in the event, for fear of being used to degrade his own culture.
From this point, it was clear that the $450 million dollars weren’t just for entertainment purposes.
The WWE’s deal with Saudi Arabia has since come under yet increased scrutiny due to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On October 2, 2018, the journalist, who has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was murdered by Saudi agents. The subsequent international furor has put pressure on anyone willing to work with Saudi Arabia.
The controversy furthered the suspicion of WWE viewers. While the $450,000,000 deal might have been initially lucrative, it may have soiled the company’s public image.
The second-ever WWE event hosted by Saudi Arabia was held on November 2nd, 2018 — exactly one month after the Khashoggi’s murder. With the crime fresh in people’s minds, the “Crown Jewel,” event was far more relevant than its predecessor. Given the media pressure, WWE tried to control the damage. In the month preceding the event, the phrase “Saudi Arabia,” was not said in any of the advertisement for the event, and all references to the show used the name of the Pay-Per-View, “Crown Jewel.” Some performers high enough on the company hierarchy, like John Cena and WWE Champion Daniel Bryan, refused to go. The disinclusion of John Cena, who has stuck with the company through thick and thin, showed the magnitude of the situation.
The show itself minimized the amount of propaganda and tried to revert to the typical WWE Pay-Per-View formula, but a of the unique character of its host nation were reiterated every time the camera panned to the all-male crowd.
Faced with a lack of starpower, international controversy, and a vocally displeased fanbase, the company managed to make their situation even worse. In what seemed like a mindless decision to deflect flak and add starpower, “The Immortal” Hulk Hogan made his return to the company, addressing thanks to their host country. Hogan, one of the biggest stars in Pro-Wrestling history, has since fallen from grace, having been heard on a recorded private conversation using racial slurs against people of color. The picture they painted wasn’t pretty — a known racist addressing a nation whose leader is widely presumed to have ordered the murder of an outspoken journalist.
At this moment, the entertainment giant has been both scrutinized and praised for its actions. Some applaud the attempt at to make connections with Saudi culture, while others criticize the deal as an immoral cash-grab. Much like the matches themselves, the fate of what happens next is in the hands of the company.