WWE's Saudi Arabia Nightmare
WWE's relationship with Saudi Arabia in the run up to The Greatest Royal Rumble was already a little gross, but now it's turned into a disaster.
Photo by Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
For a family which craves mainstream coverage and acceptance, the McMahons sure do screw it up when they get what they want.
There was, of course, the peevish defensive crouch they adopted when Chris Benoit murdered his family. That followed on from the steroid trial of the early 90s, which cast such a long shadow on the McMahon family legend that Stephanie McMahon compared it to 9/11. Dead wrestlers, drugs, and money can make the missteps of a normal person turn into grotesquerie.
But maybe nothing the McMahons have fucked up compares to the current pickle they’re in with Saudi Arabia in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent murder and dismemberment in Istanbul.
A brief recap of WWE’s sordid part in all of this. The new-ish Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, went on a propaganda blitz to show that he, as the new power behind the throne, was dedicated to modernizing the kingdom. Women would be allowed to drive. The economy would be diversified from its hyper-focus on oil extraction and refining and a woman was appointed head of the Saudi stock exchange.
The effort was dubbed Vision 2030 and the Western press ate it up. Wet gasbag Thomas Friedman, whose most celebrated line will be about how the world is flat when it should be that time when he told Arabs to "suck on this," dropped an embarrassing hagiography of bin Salman in the New York Times. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NPR, everyone ate it up in a unified voice of affirmation we don’t usually get outside of major wars.
There was just one problem: it was mostly false. The war in Yemen, a truly monstrous, one-sided conflict led by the Saudis against their poorer neighbor, raged on and intensified. Women could drive, but the activists who got them there sure did remain in prison. Qatar was isolated, blockaded, and threatened with the building of a canal to physically isolate the state from the mainland. The Saudis kept crucifying people and threatened Canada with a second 9/11. If you’re a fan of the most meager of incremental progress, you probably love this—hence Friedman’s obsequiousness, as a man who loves to trumpet baby steps as giant leaps. If you hope for a little more, especially in light of just how terrible Saudi Arabia is for at least half its population, this was thin gruel.
Enter WWE. Saudi Arabia paid the promotion a purported $40-50 million in an effort to show how modern Vision 2030 was, with the cash concentrated around a gaudy, glorified house show called The Greatest Royal Rumble. No big deal, WWE does shows in the Middle East on a semi-regular basis, particularly when putting on a show for the troops. Besides, the Saudis paid for monster truck rallies, too. It didn’t seem particularly fraught for WWE to up its presence.
As it turned out, WWE did quite a lot more than just run a show. In the weeks leading up to GRR, the love for the Saudi government reached nauseating, propagandic levels. Michael Cole bleated on endlessly about the jewel of the Middle East and how wonderful bin Salman was. Vision 2030 was mentioned by name, and its buzzwords were so present and cloying that it felt as obvious as when the announcers plug KFC or Starburst between matches.
As proof of what a sham the whole thing was, no women were allowed to wrestle at the show, missing out on a big payday (Correction: WWE did pay the women who were not able to wrestle) and the supposed visibility which was supposed to modernize Saudi Arabia in the first place. Sami Zayn, who’s Syrian-Canadian and makes a big social media effort to donate to humanitarian causes in Syria, was likewise not present at the show. It was such transparent hokum that it seemed too much even for pro wrestling.
WWE had their money and an ongoing agreement to do more, like Crown Jewel, on November 2nd. Shawn Michaels was even coming out of retirement for a tag match with Triple H against The Undertaker and Kane (who’s the GOP mayor of Knox County in Tennessee). Granted, Shawn Michaels isn’t going to come out of retirement for anything that matters, like a match with former student Daniel Bryan or modern day version of himself AJ Styles, but filthy lucre is what pro wrestling is all about. In any event, the Saudi government living perpetually in the past pretty much captures Riyadh exactly so the match makes perfect sense. It was all going swimmingly and WWE made big bucks, even if it was a little gross. But what’s a little grossness in pro wrestling?
Then the Saudis had to go and (probably) kill a dissident, US-based journalist and saw him into pieces.
This is the shitstorm WWE is now in, and it’s one of their own making. As people and companies drop out of the Vision 2030 effort by ditching conferences and sponsorships, WWE finds itself in a bind of its own making. The story is developing rapidly, at a pace of new stuff every few hours, and not a bit of it is good. WWE made Last Week Tonight, where John Oliver went hard in an extended monologue about Mohammed bin Salman by doing the meanest thing possible: simply showing WWE clips mentioning Saudi Arabia without commentary. That, in turn, made TIME, and WWE is back in the mainstream for all the wrong reasons.
WWE has stopped talking about Crown Jewel, but it is still on. The workers have been uniformly silent on the matter, though Bryan Alvarez reports that there’s significant unease backstage. It’s a disaster, yes, but the money and market share are so, so good.
Underpinning this column, when it’s not about event results, is a simple idea: pro wrestling says something about us. It doesn’t work unless it speaks to something deep within us, as Americans or Japanese, Southerners or Philadelphians, depending on location and scale. It’s a mirror, one which reflects the zeitgeist as much as it is subservient to it. It isn’t the form of communication in the United States, but so much of what the middle-brow tastemakers sneer at in the ring presaged the carnival world we live in now: Trump, a McMahon on the cabinet, the obsession with being “in the know” when you’re convinced what you’re seeing is kayfabe, the return of high dudgeon oratory via the art of the promo.
WWE went hard with Saudi Arabia because Americans have always gone hard with Saudi Arabia.
We’ve looked the other way on the Yemen atrocities and the brutal justice system which begets so many human rights abuses in the kingdom because we made fundamentally the same bargain 70 years ago that WWE did in 2017. We get paid—WWE in cash, us in cheap gas—and we look the other way, or say that something which is bad is good. We sell them arms and look the other way.
The difference is that we (as in normal people) are beholden to a system which limits our choices. We can’t just not gas up or turn on the stove. But WWE isn’t beholden to that. They don’t need the money, with their still monopolistic grip on pro wrestling. WWE’s shareholders aren’t content with that, and they’ll happily let the WWE brass look like idiots if the money flows in. Meanwhile, what the McMahons want is respect and acceptance. It’s all they’ve ever wanted, and to be a player in world politics is too much to resist.
That was a lot cuter when it was begging Aretha Franklin and Liberace to play WrestleMania, less so when Linda McMahon was running for Senate, and a lot less so once WWE became a minor propaganda arm for the Saudi foreign service. It’s made all the more discomfiting because WWE does have agency here. It might entail them to eat a temporary loss, but the McMahons are billionaires; they can eat it.
That’s not how this works, though, and it seems as though people are waking up at least a bit to it. The growing firestorm around WWE’s relationship with Vision 2030, and the hypocrisy around it, is precisely because we see something of us in the dealings. That’s a start, because being uncomfortable is good. It’s just a shame this is what it took to get there.