On Friday, WWE is presenting the Greatest Royal Rumble, a live pay-per-view event emanating from King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Announced under two months ago, the event is being pushed on WWE programming as an upper-tier pay-per-view; it features a loaded card that feels as if it might have inspired changes to some WrestleMania results two weeks ago. WWE’s decision to emphasize the Saudi show and offer significant concessions, including the complete omission of its increasingly important female roster, is the first public-facing event of a new long-term deal in place between WWE and Saudi Arabia. Understanding the promotion’s newfound partnership with the Saudi government begins by understanding how the two serve each other’s interests.
Unlike the vast majority of WWE shows, the Greatest Royal Rumble is sponsored by the Saudi General Sports Authority, which is the government body responsible for all sports events in Saudi. As a result, the card is entirely funded by the Saudi government. Until WWE’s Q2 report comes out, though, there’s no way of knowing just how much Saudi Arabia is paying for both this show and its 10-year contract with WWE in general. But given the sheer size and spectacle of the card, it’s safe to assume no expense was spared.
Over the past couple of years, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman—the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia who’s commonly known as MBS—has been hailed as a social reformer for the changes he has implemented in his Middle Eastern kingdom. Mainstream media has lauded the 32-year-old as a revolutionary figure who has transformed his conservative country by cracking down on corruption among the elite, lifting bans on various forms of entertainment such as concerts and the cinema, and allowing women the right to drive. Most of these pivotal changes are part of a strategic economic reform plan known as Vision 2030.
MBS unveiled Vision 2030—a blueprint that laid out a diverse, technocratic future for the kingdom in which the country would be free of its dependency on oil—in April 2016. Under this initiative, MBS has expanded participation in the workforce, strengthened the education system, and invested heavily in the entertainment sector, including in sporting events previously unseen in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in sports fits into the broader Vision 2030 campaign, which seeks to present the country as quickly modernizing. In 2018, Saudi Arabia has hosted a two-day Race of Champions motorsport event — the first in the kingdom — and will host the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight final in May. It was also reported that Saudi Arabia planned to acquire a stake in Hollywood talent agency and media conglomerate Endeavor, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Most recently, the kingdom secured an unprecedented 10-year deal with World Wrestling Entertainment.
WWE’s history in the Middle East in general is difficult to parse, with documentation of its earliest tours being virtually nonexistent. In the mid-‘80s, WWE (then the WWF) sent talent on several tours of that part of the world, but records are incredibly limited beyond wrestler anecdotes and rare mentions in WWF publications. The June-July 1985 issue of WWF Magazine documented one such tour, “WWF Spring Middle East Championship ’85 Tour,” in the periodical’s recurring “Foreign Affairs” section. That article offers few actual details beyond the facts that the tour hit Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Cyprus, and that the previously and subsequently unmentioned Asian Heavyweight and Asian Tag Team championships were contested.
According to Gama Singh, who was brought on several mid-‘80s tours to appeal to the local Indian population, WWE may not have actually visited Saudi Arabia before, in spite of what its magazine said.
“I remember [VP of the WWF’s international division] Jim Troy telling me ‘We’ve got a four-week tour coming up to Saudi Arabia,’ and this and this and this, and at the last minute, the clergy refused to grant us work permits,” Singh said. “They said it was inappropriate for men to be in bathing suits and performing in front of the women. They didn’t think it was proper, so we never got our work permits, and the tour, at that time, never materialized.” He added that a similar issue arose in Kuwait with female wrestlers after they arrived, so the only way they could perform was to walk male wrestlers to the ring while wearing track suits.
The 1988 home video “Best of the WWF Vol. 16: Around the World” features highlights of an undated Mr. Fuji mach from Kuwait City with an unknown opponent, and remains the only footage released from any of those tours. In addition, The Glamour Girls’ 1985 WWF Women’s Tag Team title win was officially billed as having taken place in Cairo, Egypt. The common belief is that the match never happened (a December 2012 WWE.com article agrees), but you can’t really rule it out. When asked, Gama Singh could not remember if such a match took place, but did remember female wrestlers on at least one tour.
The only other time you ever really hear about these tours is if someone mentions the longstanding story, first reported by Irv Muchnick in the ‘90s, that Jimmy Snuka, at the end of the Summer 1985 tour, was caught at Kuwaiti customs “with controlled substances taped to his body.” The official tours stopped around that time (though Singh noted that the WWF’s local promoter continued running shows with independent wrestlers), not resuming until a decade later.
Despite the star power at the Greatest Royal Rumble, a huge part of the roster will not make the trip to Jeddah. When asked by Deadspin when the show was announced, WWE responded with a statement that “female WWE superstars will not be performing at this year’s event.” Given that WWE has spent the past few years championing their “women’s revolution” and Ronda Rousey is their current biggest mainstream star, this represents a significant step backward. It also indicates WWE doing its part to help rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s image while indirectly supporting the Kingdom’s ongoing commitment to gender segregation.
(At least one other reporter, Fightful’s Chris Harrington, was told alongside a similar statement to familiarize himself with Vision 2030.)
On December 7th, WWE pushed a show in Abu Dhabi heavily on social media, as it featured Alexa Bliss vs. Sasha Banks in the first ever women’s wrestling match in the United Arab Emirates. Instead of their usual two-piece ring gear, though, both wore full body suits to defer to local dress codes. The messaging was all about “making history,” and that continued in WWE 24: Empowered, a WWE Network documentary.
“When you can take female performers from WWE to someplace where those opportunities don’t necessarily exist, that’s so culturally significant,” says Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE EVP for talent, live events and creative. His wife, WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon, notes the costume change, saying that “They had outfits designed, because we still need to be very respectful, culturally, and they’ve had their skin covered.”
As the documentary moves to clips of the match, McMahon adds that “I don’t think anybody truly understood the weight of that moment until Sasha and Alexa were in the ring and the chant broke out: ‘This is hope.’” After a clip of just a few fans chanting that is shown, McMahon notes that “it seemed like something much bigger than WWE itself” as a little girl is shown enjoying the match ... from what looks to be the UAE royal family’s section.
The very same day that Empowerment premiered, WWE announced that the Greatest Royal Rumble would feature seven title matches, including a rematch of Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns, which headlined WrestleMania, plus a 50-man Royal Rumble match with returning guest stars like Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio. WWE announced this week that the show is sold out.
While Vision 2030 is being lauded as a modern solution to the monarchy’s heavy reliance on oil, it does not involve significant social reform. Instead, it has provided MBS with a strategic way to distract international attention away from the wide-scale human rights abuses that the country continues to commit. The Crown Prince’s heavy investment in sports comes on the heels of Saudi’s brutal campaign in Yemen—a war that has displaced over three million people and created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The latest example saw the Saudi-led military coalition conduct an air strike on a wedding on Sunday, killing more than 20 people.
Though Saudi Arabia’s reputation is being mended by its attempt to project images of anti-corruption, moderate Islam, improved women’s rights, and a plethora of sports and entertainment, it would be negligent to ignore the country’s continued disregard for political and civil liberties. Dissent is met with violent repressive methods such as torture and extrajudicial killings, while homosexuality remains illegal and punishable by death.
Male guardianship remains firmly entrenched, keeping women at the mercy of their spouses or male relatives who have the final say on whether they are allowed to travel, study abroad, or access health care. The ability to attend football matches in a handful of stadiums does not change the fact that the Saudi government monitors women using electronic systems that track cross-border movements, and has forcibly returned women who fled their relatives.
In its March statement noting the absence of female talent, WWE also told Deadspin that women would be “allowed to attend,” though if the reality is a bit more complicated. Those who purchased tickets for the show were unable to select their exact seats. Instead, they were limited to Upper Section, Lower Section, VIP, or Gold. More significantly, according to WWE website for Saudi Arabia, tickets were available for families or “singles,’ which refers only to individual males and not females. Women are not allowed to attend the show without a male guardian.
When asked this week about WWE’s decision to keep its female roster off the major show in a country known for its horrific treatment of women, Levesque, the wrestler turned executive, said that it came down to a difference in “culture.”
“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,” he told he told The Independent. “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 affect change anywhere by staying away from it.”
From a wrestling business point of view, what sticks out about the Greatest Royal Rumble is just how big a show WWE is making this. A 50-man Royal Rumble match is unprecedented, and especially since WWE tries to protect the Rumble as something special. Adding seven title matches, including guaranteed new Raw Tag Team champs and a Lesnar-Reigns rematch that feels like a likely title change, elevates it even further. And if Reigns does leave Jeddah with the belt, there will be a feeling among the fanbase that a WrestleMania switch was delayed to give the Saudis a bigger match.
For Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire, there is, ostensibly, a lot to like about this deal: It’s a long-term foothold in the Middle East, likely longer than any other contract the company has. There’s no direct financial risk, as the Greatest Royal Rumble and likely all future Saudi events are sold shows where the company is paid a flat fee—one described by Dave Meltzer as “millions and millions and millions of dollars.” And don’t underestimate the value of being able to brag about running two different massive stadium shows on two continents in under three weeks; in this business, especially, optics matter.
But WWE’s willingness to host an event in Saudi Arabia makes it the latest sideshow to distract from the ongoing issues within the kingdom. Ultimately, the Greatest Royal Rumble will help cement MBS’s legitimacy by presenting his nation as a modern and reformed country ready to amalgamate with the Western world. Leveraging sports and entertainment events for political gain is a long-celebrated tradition for authoritarian regimes and dictatorships like the Saudi Arabian monarchy. WWE, it appears, is happy to help them along.
WWE did not respond to Deadspin’s requests for comment on the omission of women from the card in light of the Abu Dhabi adjustments, the segregated ticket sales, and the Saudi government’s human rights record.