Controversy isn’t exactly uncharted territory for World Wrestling Entertainment, better known as WWE. This is, after all, the company whose story lines have at various times featured date rape, necrophilia, a literal in-ring murder, and a man being pelted with the ashes of his real-life dead friend.
Yet even the WWE’s most controversial scripted moments were at least in the service of a story. The same can’t be said for the company’s recent decision to carry out public-relations work for a homicidal tyrant.
This past weekend saw the WWE’s so-called Greatest Royal Rumble held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the first event in a forthcoming decade-long partnership between the Kingdom of Saud and WWE that was inked earlier this year. Even before the pay-per-view spectacle last Friday, the company had faced criticism for making a deal with a government that not only regularly presses a boot on the faces of its citizens, but is currently in the midst of a years-long campaign of atrocities in Yemen.
But Friday’s show went further, serving up a five-hour extravaganza that both implicitly and, at times, explicitly whitewashed the ugly reality of the autocratic Saudi regime. It’s a move that, in any other political climate, would have induced howls of anger from viewers and sponsors. As is, the company looks poised to sail on with less outrage than when its CEO elected to wrestle God.
“Philanthropy Is the Future of Marketing”
The WWE has spent more than a decade trying to airbrush its image in the eyes of the public, transforming itself from a perceived fountain of offense-courting trash TV — however reductive that characterization — to a soft, cuddly, PG-13 merchandizing juggernaut. The face of its company holds the record for most wishes granted for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Its current flagship wrestler has dressed up as an elf and chosen a small boy to be his tag-team partner. The company runs an anti-bullying campaign and gives copiously to charity.
Sure, such philanthropy was always transparently self-serving, as one of its executives inadvertently suggested in a tweet that somehow still hasn’t been deleted. But the fact that the company saw its greater self-interest in being sensitive to such issues was a shift, no matter how minor. All of which is why the WWE’s deal with Saudi Arabia raised so many eyebrows.
For one, there’s its burgeoning women’s division. Long criticized for favoring physical appearance over athleticism in its female talent, as well as shoving its women wrestlers in demeaning mud-wrestling segments and “bra and panties” matches, the company has turned a corner in recent years. The women’s division has gone from these ignominious roots to rivaling the men’s in athleticism and acclaim.
Yet you would’ve been hard pressed to spot a single one of the company’s female stars on Friday because, as per the kingdom’s misogynistic rules, none were allowed to perform for the packed Saudi crowd. This was compounded by the fact that women were only allowed to attend the show if they were accompanied by a man.
There’s also the company’s treatment of the LGBTQ community. The WWE has long taken justified heat for its less-than-stellar portrayals of gay characters over the decades. As per the rest of its PR efforts, it has been conspicuously trying to signal its evolution on the issue. Finn Bálor, an Irish wrestler cut from a different mold than the company’s traditional obsession with cartoonishly inflated physiques, has been on the receiving end of many a gushing headline for his dramatic statement of support for gay rights at WrestleMania, the company’s flagship event held earlier this month.
Yet the WWE’s financial partnership with a government that literally beheads people for their sexual orientations reveals how hollow the company’s gestures toward “inclusivity” are. It’s no wonder some wrestlers reportedly resented having to perform at the event.
Besides this, there’s a legitimate question about the ethics of any company’s engagement with a government like Saudi Arabia’s. On the one hand, one could argue that if the WWE has brightened the lives of ordinary Saudi citizens by entertaining them in a way they’ve rarely been allowed to experience, the rest is irrelevant. On the other hand, would anyone say the same if the WWE elected to partner with an apartheid government, and told its black wrestlers to stay home while touring to boot?
For his part, “Triple H,” WWE executive and quasi-retired worker, defended the company’s decision in an interview before the event. “Every culture is different and just because you don’t agree with a certain aspect of it, it doesn’t mean it’s not a relevant culture,” he said.
The trouble is that, even these murky ethical questions aside, the WWE did a lot more on Friday than simply turn a blind eye to the Saudi government’s “different culture.” Rather, it actively assisted the new crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman — fresh off a high-profile purge of his political rivals — in rehabilitating both his and the Saudi ruling class’s image.
No one is sure yet what exactly the Saudis’ ten-year contract with the WWE mandates, other than that the country’s General Sports Authority (GSA) is believed to have funded Friday’s show. Judging by what took place in Jeddah, however, it likely involves a hefty transfer of petrodollars to the WWE’s bank account in exchange for an explicit clause mandating some less-than-subtle government-friendly messaging.
Since ascending to power, bin Salman has been trying (successfully) to paint himself as his country’s Deng Xiaoping, a non-fundamentalist modernizer with whom the West can happily do business. To that end, he’s made some liberalizing gestures, such as finally allowing women to drive and criminalizing sexual harassment, as well as allowing the expansion of entertainment industries in the country, including the importation of high-profile sporting events, such as the WWE’s traveling show. Of course, besides largely being cynical PR moves, it’s important to note these measures are relatively minor, and that women, as well as gay people, political dissidents, and, well, just about everyone else, continue to be oppressed in the country.
Bin Salman has embarked on a wide-ranging PR effort to sell this supposedly new Saudi Arabia on the world stage. Not long before Friday’s pay-per-view, bin Salman was busy with a dizzying tour of the US, in which he met and took photos with everyone from Rupert Murdoch and the president to the Rock and Oprah. The WWE’s Greatest Royal Rumble was in some ways a cap-off to this US-focused campaign.
And it showed. The event itself served as a statement of the “modern,” supposedly liberalized Saudi Arabia the crown prince has been hawking to the world. WWE’s commentators dutifully reminded us throughout the show what a “historic” event it was, of the “beautiful city of Jeddah,” and what an “honor and a privilege” it was for the WWE to perform in the country. Glitzy images of the city’s beaches and glittering nighttime cityscape peppered the broadcast. John Cena, the soon-to-be-departing face of the company, picked up a mic after his opening-match win to insist to the crowd that he wouldn’t have missed the event “for anything in the world” and how happy he was “to be part of something so special.”
Of course, pro wrestling has never been about subtlety, and true to form, any subtext was eventually abandoned.
It was an event “with historic implications,” said announce Corey Graves at one point, “as we celebrate Saudi Arabia’s progression for cultural diversity and the Vision 2030 plan,” referring to bin Salman’s modernization campaign. The announce team would continue to refer to the show as a “celebration” and stress its “historical repercussions” for the rest of the show.
This fawning praise arguably reached its zenith an hour in, when the WWE played a promotional video talking up bin Salman’s liberalizing measures. “It’s the dawning of a new age in Saudi Arabia,” a narrator intoned over images of Jeddah and thobe-clad men dancing and doing kick-flips on skateboards; “and the societal renaissance that is sweeping this desert nation, has a great deal to do with thirty-two-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.” Cue images of bin Salman, including, amusingly, a Time magazine cover exalting his “charm offensive.”
“We have a leadership that is allowing the population to make its own decision within the context of being a global citizen,” the Saudi Arabian Sports Authority’s female vice-president of development and planning told the viewers. “I am very proud of our leadership,” a Saudi rally driver affirmed. Its health administration sociocultural leader, a woman, broke down in tears. “I have never been happier in Saudi Arabia than I am now,” she said. “Being heard by the leaders and having something done about it.”
This segment was aimed squarely at every non-Saudi tuning in. Anyone watching the show on the WWE Network, the company’s streaming service, was forced to sit through the two-minute segment.
Halfway through the show, the WWE even gave four starry-eyed Saudi wrestlers some ring time, letting them beat up two invading Iranian-American “heel” characters waving an Iranian flag and abusing the Saudi crowd and wrestlers.
Bigger Than Baseball
Why should we care that the WWE has elected to carry water for the Saudi dictatorship?
Perhaps most importantly, the company has a devoted, global audience that reaches millions of people. In terms of dollar value, the WWE’s flagship pay-per-view is more valuable than traditional sporting events like the College Football Playoff and the World Series. It’s this massive audience — a good chunk of whom are voting age — that was being fed the crown prince’s propaganda in between matches, and presumably will continue to in shows to come.
Of course, the WWE is only doing what any enormous, monopolist corporation does: ruthlessly chase dollars wherever it can at the expense of ethical or moral concerns. The fact that WWE wagered it could get away with assisting the crown prince in his PR campaign is a symptom of a wider political climate that treats the Saudi regime with obsequious flattery, regardless of its many misdeeds. It’s hard to imagine the WWE ever agreeing to hold a major pay-per-view show in, say, Russia while inter-cutting segments praising Putin in between matches, no matter the size of the check.
“It is a celebration of an absolutely historic night here in Jeddah,” said announcer Michael Cole as a fluorescent web of fireworks draped over the stadium to end the night. “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his Saudi Vision 2030 … it was very successful tonight.”
Somewhere, as he watched his investment successfully draw to a close, one can imagine bin Salman agreeing.