The WWE held a major event in Saudi Arabia, and is now suffering the repercussions. Who could ever have predicted?
Some backstory: Earlier this year, the WWE and Saudi Arabia struck a 10-year deal. The contract included an event last Friday dubbed Greatest Royal Rumble, which included nearly every men’s WWE title up for grabs and a 50-man Royal Rumble headlining the card. It was a plank of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s attempt to “modernize” the country, and part of WWE’s attempt to make as much money as possible.
The event, as far as wrestling goes, was fine. It was essentially a glorified house show, one you might see at Madison Square Garden or at a place WWE doesn’t go very often. Nothing was incredible. But it was a five-hour wrestling show on a Friday afternoon, Daniel Bryan wrestled for more than an hour and Titus O’Neil had one of the funniest botches of all time. Watching it was a great way to avoid work.
The most depressing part of the show was the amount of Saudi propaganda sprinkled throughout. WWE has never been able to be subtle, and Michael Cole and the announcing crew spent the entire card talking up Mohammed Bin Salman, who is far from the progressive reformer he makes himself out to be, and the great Saudi government. The show was essentially a five-hour propaganda tribute to the House of Saud.
Since this was an event in Saudi Arabia, women wrestlers didn’t appear on the card. Women fans were only allowed to attend with a male guardian. Triple H, WWE’s wrestler-turned-executive, told The Independent that “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.” That’s a pretty weak stance for a company that’s been trumpeting its “women’s revolution” to take, unless of course that was never much more than a marketing term.
Several women’s wrestlers commented on the exclusion. “One day,” Sasha Banks tweeted. Becky Lynch posted a photo of herself in the gym while the event ran with the caption “working and watching.” One of the announcers, Corey Graves, posted a photo of a shot and a beer with this caption: “A drink to remember that no matter how bad WE think we have it, at least our women have rights and we all have freedom of expression.” Incidentally, PWInsider is reporting WWE’s female wrestlers will be paid as if they actually worked the event.
The bad press produced by the even doesn’t end there. Saudi Arabia has had to apologize because clips of women wrestlers were shown in a video package in the arena. The country’s General Sports Authority said it was sorry for “the scenes of indecent women that featured in an ad before one of the matches.” The Saudi government promised to be vigilant in preventing people from seeing women wrestlers again.
Also apologizing is Ariya Daivari, an Iranian-American wrestler who works in WWE’s cruiserweight division. Early in the show, Daivari appeared in a skit where he waved the Iranian flag before being dispatched by a gaggle of Saudi wrestlers.
Daivari said he received death threats for the skit. “During an appearance this past Friday, I portrayed a fictional character and played the role of the antagonist, no different than what other actors would do in a movie or TV show,” he wrote in a statement released on Twitter. “That character does not reflect my personal views and I apologize to anyone that may have been offended by the skit. I have an incredible amount of respect for the great people of Iran and I am very proud of my Iranian heritage.”
Another wrestler with a Middle Eastern heritage, Sami Zayn, didn’t appear on the show at all. Zayn, a Syrian-Canadian from Quebec, has raised $96,000 for a mobile medical clinic in his parents’ birth country through his Sami for Syria project. Saudi Arabia has recently threatened military action against Syria and its money is funding Syrian rebels. Zayn’s character isn’t political, but he didn’t attend. It’s unclear if it was the company’s decision or his. WWE released a brief statement on his absence that didn’t do much to dispel the idea that he was kept away from the event because of his charity work: “WWE is committed to embracing individuals from all backgrounds while respecting local customs and cultural differences around the world.”
One wrestler who did take part in the show was Hiroki Sumi, a sumo wrestler who we’d never seen before. He awkwardly tussled with Mark Henry and was quickly eliminated. It was a weird character to introduce, and it’s likely we’ll never see him again. So why was he on the show?
The Wrestling Observer had an idea on its radio show: When a Saudi prince was talking with Vince McMahon about the event, he mentioned three wrestlers he wanted to see on the show: The Undertaker, Ultimate Warrior and Yokozuna. The latter two are dead, but it looks like the WWE was able to scare up Sumi as a kind of replacement for Yokozuna. Hey, it’s enough to fool the marks.