As the world follows Khashoggi, WWE is going ahead with a show promoting Saudi Arabian interests. Why?

Fans like me are calling on the organisation to pull out of Riyadh – but despite seeming embarrassed about their choice, WWE appears to still be going ahead with a very controversial show

Greg Evans
Tuesday 23 October 2018 16:23 BST
Kane is the alter ego of Glenn Jacobs, who is now an elected mayor in Tennessee. Can a US politician really appear onstage in a Saudi Arabia promotion event after Khashoggi?
Kane is the alter ego of Glenn Jacobs, who is now an elected mayor in Tennessee. Can a US politician really appear onstage in a Saudi Arabia promotion event after Khashoggi? (WWE)

Wrestling is unlike any brand of entertainment on the planet. It drags you into what is essentially a predetermined spectacle and demands that you become involved in an individual’s journey. This was none more evident on Monday night when Roman Reigns, one of WWE’s top stars, told fans he is battling leukaemia, forcing him to relinquish his Universal Championship title.

This news prompted an outpouring of support and respect for Reigns from his fellow wrestlers and especially from fans, who haven’t always been on his side but recognise his dedication to his craft. It’s notable that in his speech, he thanked people for “reacting” to him, saying, “It didn’t matter if you cheered or booed me… I have to say thank-you so much.” One can hardly imagine a footballer saying the same.

This concept of respect will be put to the test more than ever in the coming weeks not because of Monday’s sad news but due to a show WWE is putting on in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 2 November. Dubbed “Crown Jewel”, this will be the second show in a “10-year strategic multiplatform partnership” between the WWE and the General Sports Authority, a body of the Saudi government.

All of this is part of a scheme engineered by the Saudi royal family called Saudi Vision 2030, which aims to improve and promote the global image of the nation. In other words, it’s a large-scale, extremely expensive PR exercise. The deal is reported to be earning WWE $45m (£35m) a year for the next decade.

On 27 April, WWE hosted their first Saudi-based televised event in Jeddah. But before “Greatest Royal Rumble” even happened, fans voiced their disgruntlement at the thought of a show held in a country engaging in a war of attrition with Yemen, and where homosexuality is illegal. Women also have limited rights in the country, which meant WWE's female wrestlers were prevented from performing.

Those who watched were treated to what was essentially a piece of Saudi Arabian propaganda, where commentators would regularly promote “Saudi Vision 2030” and speak highly of “the beautiful city of Jeddah”. WWE, it seemed, had become a mouthpiece of the Saudi royal family, and it made for uncomfortable viewing.

WWE wrestler Kane speaks after being elected as mayor of Knox County, Tennesse

Fast forward to the present and WWE have found themselves in the centre of major controversy after confirmation that Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul. For WWE, this has suddenly moved beyond a lucrative business opportunity to an international incident, where their dealings with the Saudi government are criticised by senators and political commentators.

Furthermore, WWE fans are voicing their disappointment more than ever. Any Twitter search for “Crown Jewel” will show dozens of tweets telling WWE to cancel the event. In an unprecedented moment on the 16 October edition of Smackdown Live, their second biggest weekly TV show, the legendary Undertaker was jeered for merely mentioning the show.

Damage prevention and embarrassment appear to have set in. Although the event is still being promoted, its location is no longer being mentioned on television. Any mention of Saudi Arabia has been removed from the WWE website, while tickets are no longer being listed. The only statement released so far vaguely declared that WWE was “monitoring the situation”.

Fresh rumours say the two top stars, John Cena and Daniel Bryan, are refusing to work at the event, with others also raising private concerns.

Another point that has been seemingly overlooked to date is that Glenn Jacobs, also known as Kane, will be wrestling at “Crown Jewel” despite being elected as the mayor of Knox County, Tennessee in August. Having an incumbent American politician performing onstage in a country whose officials have just murdered a US resident is something even wrestling fans would find hard to accept – and believe me, wrestling fans buy into a lot of strange stuff.

So what happens now? It would appear that WWE are set on doing this show with as little fanfare as possible. They don’t want to become part of the discussion about Jamal Khashoggi’s death. Could an intervention from Donald Trump, a man who has close ties to WWE, cause them to cancel the event? Some have asked the question. But Trump has his own lucrative investments in Saudi Arabia, and has already said that cancelling US weapons deals with the country would be “foolish”, so that seems unlikely.

As a wrestling fan, I can’t help but think that if this was any other sport or form of entertainment then this show would have been cancelled as soon as Khashoggi disappeared. Can you imagine the likes of the Premier League or Beyoncé hosting a match or a concert in a country in the midst of a major international flashpoint? Me neither. And that brings me back to the idea of respect, or lack thereof, for wrestling.

For those that love it, wrestling is the best thing on the planet, something worth absorbing daily and investing huge amounts of time in – but in reality, it has barely ever transcended its roots as a piece of fairground entertainment that pulls the wool over audience’s eyes. It often shies away from addressing political concerns or taking a stance on civil rights. The industry is beginning to change – but it still has a long way to go.

WWE could set a precedent for wrestling by cancelling “Crown Jewel”. It would be a costly decision, but it may help restore a little bit of credibility to an industry which, despite its popularity, still struggles for recognition in the sporting world. They should at the very least try.

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