WWE in Saudi Arabia

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WWE in Saudi Arabia
WWE Logo.svgEmblem of Saudi Arabia.svg
Promotion(s)WWE
Brand(s)Raw
SmackDown
205 Live
First eventApril 2014 tour

WWE, an American professional wrestling promotion based in Stamford, Connecticut, United States, has been promoting events in Saudi Arabia since 2014. In contrast to regular WWE events, female wrestlers were banned from appearing in events held in Saudi Arabia until 2019.[1]

Many events in the country promoted by WWE have been subjected to criticism due to curtailing LGBT equality, a state guilty of severe human rights abuses, leading a war of attrition in Yemen, and suppressing women's rights.[2][3][4] These were condemned by activist groups such as Code Pink and several politicians.[5][6] The quality of the events themselves was also largely criticized by both fans and critics.[7][8][9][10][11] The Wrestling Observer Newsletter gave the relationship between WWE and Saudi Arabia their annual Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic award in both 2018 and 2019, the first time in history it has been given twice to the same maneuver.[11]

History[edit]

In December 2013, it was announced that WWE would begin holding shows in Saudi Arabia.[12] In April 2014, WWE held their first house shows in Riyadh, their first event ever in Saudi Arabia,[13][14][15] which were three separate shows at the Green Halls Stadium.[16] In October 2015, WWE did three house shows from Jeddah, at the King Abdullah Sports City Sports Hall.[17][18] In November 2016, the WWE again returned to Green Halls Stadium in Riyadh, for two additional live events.[19] The 2016 events were exclusive to the SmackDown brand.[20]

In 2017, WWE Wal3ooha began broadcasting throughout the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, on OSN Sports.[21] The show ended when OSN discontinued the channel it broadcast on in March 2019, along with the majority of its sports programming.[22]

On March 5, 2018, WWE and the Saudi General Sports Authority advertised the Greatest Royal Rumble, a live event to be held on April 27, 2018, at King Abdullah International Stadium, part of the King Abdullah Sports City, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.[23][24] The event was the first in a 10-year strategic multi-platform partnership between WWE and the Saudi General Sports Authority in support of Saudi Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia's social and economic reform program.[25][26]

Controversies[edit]

Women's rights[edit]

WWE had been criticized for holding the events without female wrestlers, who were unable to perform at the event due to the limited rights women have in Saudi Arabia.[27][3] Triple H, WWE's Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative, responded to the criticism: "I understand that people are questioning it, but you have to understand that 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...You can’t dictate to a country or a religion about how they handle things but, having said that, WWE is at the forefront of a women’s evolution in the world and what you can’t do is effect change anywhere by staying away from it....While women are not competing in the event, we have had discussions about that and hope that, in the next few years they will be".[27]

Consistent with the change in law for sporting events in 2017,[28] women are in attendance for the events, though only if accompanied by a male guardian.[27] This was a major change from previous events, which were only open to men. Associated Press noted that this is due to "a series of social changes" by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.[29]

During the Greatest Royal Rumble, WWE aired a promotional video, which included female wrestlers in their ring gear. The Saudi General Sports Authority issued an apology for "indecent material" that aired at the event.[30]

During the second show, Crown Jewel, Renee Young provided commentary at the show. She did the same at 2019's Super ShowDown.[31]

Just hours before Super ShowDown on June 7, 2019, reports emerged that WWE were attempting to add a women's match to the card, which would have seen Alexa Bliss face Natalya. The two women joined WWE personnel for the trip, but the match was ultimately rejected by the Saudi Arabian government.[32][33]

On October 30, 2019, WWE announced that a match between Natalya and Lacey Evans had been approved for the 2019 Crown Jewel event, making it the first-ever women's match in Saudi Arabia. At the event, both women wore full body suits and T-shirts instead of normal ring attire, due to the country's conservative dress policy.[34] WWE largely celebrated the match as groundbreaking, which they later nominated for a WWE Year-End Award for Moment of the Year, with WWE CBO Stephanie McMahon stating in an interview: "You can either sit on the sidelines and there are plenty of companies and brands that decide to do that or you can be a part of hopefully enacting change. You can be a part of progress. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. It takes time. It takes perseverance. Now here we are with the first ever women's match in Saudi Arabia. It's pretty mind blowing."[35][36]

However, reactions from other media outlets were mixed. While some were positive, such as Heavy.com, who stated that the match was "put in place to break barriers and further WWE's 'Women’s Evolution' for the proud ladies in attendance and watching all over the world. And for that, I have to give it the utmost props", or Canoe.com who stated that "The historic match was about and meant so much more [than its result]."[37][38] Conversely, Dave Meltzer wrote that although WWE claimed that "the match was a major cultural breakthrough" in Saudi Arabia, it was really "not a Sputnik Monroe situation which changed local culture". This was because "many women performers have [already] been invited to Saudi Arabia", with the city of Riyadh's current promotion of sports and entertainment. Regarding the match, Meltzer wrote that it was "very basic, by design", to avoid "anything that would be taken wrongly" - explaining why Evans did not play her usual character with "sexy" traits. With "no heel or face or heat, and both not having noticeable ring costumes, it came across more like two women in a gym going through wrestling practice sequences".[39] Newsweek called the match part of "Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's [intent on] luring major sports event [...] to position the ultra-conservative Islamic country as more liberal and diversify its economy away from depending on the oil industry as part of its Saudi Vision 2030 plan", with Saudi Arabian Amnesty International researcher Dana Ahmed calling the match "a prime example how the Saudi Arabian authorities are using elite sports to try to 'sportswash' their dire human rights record and image internationally".[40] CBS Sports criticized Michael Cole's commentary, pointing out that he was "trying to put over the progressiveness of Saudi Arabia" during the match.[41]

On WWE's next PPV in Saudi Arabia, Super ShowDown, Bayley defended her SmackDown Women's Championship against Naomi, making it the first time a women's championship was defended in Saudi Arabia.

Killing of Jamal Khashoggi[edit]

One month prior to Crown Jewel, Saudi Arabia received substantial negative press due to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents. This led to the WWE facing calls to cancel the event, with prominent U.S. Democratic and Republican politicians criticizing the company's endeavors in Saudi Arabia.[42] Questions were raised whether because of the position of Administrator of the Small Business Administration Linda McMahon, who is the wife of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and a former WWE executive herself, WWE's endeavors in Saudi Arabia could still be viewed as a strictly private business enterprise. Due to this, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez urged the US government to pressure WWE into canceling the event, while Republican Lindsey Graham, among others, called for WWE to reconsider their business deal with the Saudi kingdom.[43] WWE continued to promote the show, but erased all references to Saudi Arabia as the event's location.[44]

On October 19, the day tickets were to go on sale, the Saudi government confirmed the death of Khashoggi within the consulate and WWE.com removed ticket information from the event page.[45] On October 25, WWE confirmed the event would go on as planned, citing contractual obligations to the General Sports Authority.[46] Speaking with Sky Sports on pushing forward with the event despite the murder, Stephanie McMahon spoke of "an incredibly tough decision, given that heinous act", but said that in the end it was strictly a business decision.[47]

Wrestlers refusing to work[edit]

Sami Zayn did not participate in the Greatest Royal Rumble as Zayn is of Syrian descent, and Saudi Arabia has strained relations with Syria.[48] Noam Dar, an Israeli wrestler, of 205 Live has never participated in any of the Saudi events due to the Arab League boycott of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.[49]

During Crown Jewel, Daniel Bryan was scheduled to face AJ Styles for the WWE Championship, but he refused to work the show due to the Khashoggi murder.[50] As a result, his title match was bumped up to the October 30 episode of SmackDown, and he was replaced by Samoa Joe at Crown Jewel. John Cena, who was scheduled to participate in the WWE World Cup at Crown Jewel and had called it "an honor and a privilege" to compete in Saudi Arabia during the Greatest Royal Rumble, was replaced by Bobby Lashley, as he reportedly refused to work the show in wake of the Khashoggi murder.[51][52]

In 2019 for Super ShowDown, Kevin Owens and Aleister Black told WWE that they would not travel to Saudi Arabia, in addition to Zayn and Bryan once again not competing on the show.[53][54] Kevin Owens' refusal to work the show allegedly comes from his friendship with Sami Zayn.[55] As a result of his absence, he was replaced in the WWE Championship match by Dolph Ziggler.

Travel issues[edit]

On 31 October 2019, after the Crown Jewel event, more than 175 wrestlers, production staff, and other employees boarded the 747 charter flight at the King Fahd International Airport, but remained stuck inside the plane for more than six hours. This led to 20 wrestlers arranging their own separate charter in order to make it back to the US.[56] On 1 November 2019, both WWE and Atlas Air falsely issued statements that the WWE staff and wrestlers were stuck in Saudi Arabia due to mechanical failures in the charter plane. These claims were easily disproved by the fact all flight records are publicly available, the plane the WWE wrestlers were on took off after they had disembarked. Former WWE Spanish commentator Hugo Savinovich claimed that Vince McMahon ordered to cut the live feed of the PPV in Saudi Arabia due to Kingdom's inability to make payments on time; Rumours suggest that the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman subsequently ordered the wrestlers to be taken off the plane.[57]

In January 2020, it was reported that more WWE wrestlers declined to visit Saudi Arabia for future events in the country. While in 2018, players refused to visit the Kingdom for its human rights records, in 2020 it was the growing tension in the gulf because of the US-Iran conflict.[58]

Lawsuit[edit]

On March 6, 2020, a retirement fund for firefighters filled a lawsuit against WWE in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, stemming from concerns related to the fund's holding of WWE stock. According to Forbes, it is "an attempt at class action alleging that WWE defrauded investors via its handling of their deals with the Saudi royal family, who also control OSN, the network that airs WWE programming in Saudi Arabia." The lawsuit claims that the Saudi Arabian government failed to pay WWE millions of dollars owed from their deal with the company, that WWE's failed to disclose said payment issues and that OSN unlawfully terminated a broadcast deal with WWE.[59]

In April 2020, several shareholders and investment firm filed a class action lawsuit against WWE for their alleged ties with Saudi Arabia. As per the portion of the filing, wrestlers were held hostage after the Crown Jewel event in Saudi last year. “Saudi Government was effectively holding a number of WWE wrestlers ‘hostage'," statement from the filing read.[60]

Live events[edit]

House shows[edit]

SmackDown-branded event
# Date City Venue
1 April 17–19, 2014[20] Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Green Halls Stadium
2 October 8–10, 2015[61] Jeddah, Saudi Arabia King Abdullah Sports City Sports Hall
3 November 3–4, 2016[20] Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Green Halls Stadium

Pay-per-view events[edit]

# Event Date City Venue Main Event
1 Greatest Royal Rumble April 27, 2018 Jeddah, Saudi Arabia King Abdullah International Stadium 50-man Royal Rumble match for the Greatest Royal Rumble Trophy and Championship[62]
2 Crown Jewel (2018) November 2, 2018 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia King Saud University Stadium D-Generation X (Shawn Michaels and Triple H) vs. The Brothers of Destruction (Kane and The Undertaker)[63]
3 Super ShowDown (2019)[64] June 7, 2019[65] Jeddah, Saudi Arabia King Abdullah International Stadium[66] Goldberg vs. The Undertaker
4 Crown Jewel (2019) October 31, 2019[67][68] Riyadh, Saudi Arabia King Fahd International Stadium Seth Rollins (c) vs. "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt in a Falls Count Anywhere match for the WWE Universal Championship
5 Super ShowDown (2020) February 27, 2020[69] Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Mohammed Abdu Arena on the Boulevard "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt (c) vs. Goldberg for the WWE Universal Championship

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