Four hundred and fifty million dollars. According to multiple reports, that’s the amount of money WWE stands to earn over the next ten years, thanks to its partnership with Saudi Arabia. The wrestling promotion, which touts its civic responsibility through a variety of charities, anti-cancer advocacy, and anti-bullying initiatives, is dealing with a monarchy guilty of human rights violations that occurred on its watch. Furthermore, the CIA concluded in November 2018 that Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, ordered the killing of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi the prior month.
It has been stated many times by the media, politicians (across political lines), and the wrestling press, but it bears repeating: WWE’s decision to remain in this partnership is an objective moral failing that calls its leadership and guiding principles into question.
WWE has honed in on the handful of bright spots. Prior to the first Saudi Arabia event, which took place before the Khashoggi killing, Triple H said the following in response to criticism that women would not be performing at the shows: “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.”
On this front, Saudi Arabia has made small, if token gestures towards progress; the first women’s match took place at Crown Jewel (2019), approximately a year and half after Triple H made his statement. A second women’s match–this time, a title match between Bayley and Naomi–will take place at the fifth massive Saudi Arabia show, Super Showdown, on February 27.
But the problems outweigh the positives. The Saudi Arabia deal has compromised the narrative quality of the weekly shows, which, incidentally, include more than a single, token women’s match per broadcast. For example, at Super Showdown on February 27, there are currently rumors that Goldberg will win the Universal title from The Fiend.
There was a report that came out after the Greatest Royal Rumble that a Saudi prince requested the presence of the Ultimate Warrior and Yokozuna (despite both performers being dead in real life). Clearly, the Legends and Hall of Famers are a major factor in this deal and have an outsized importance. The Undertaker has main evented two of these massive shows. Shawn Michaels came out of retirement for a tag team match. And in light of this, the rumors of a Goldberg win are less shocking. But where will that leave the Fiend’s character when all is said and done? Are they going to throw away a year of Wyatt’s character development in service of this deal? Let’s hope not.
There’s also the issue of showing these newly important PPVs live. Granted, WWE is a global company; not every PPV outing needs to conform to the leisure hours of the United States. But scheduling this PPV for a weekday seems counterproductive. How does the company expect its storylines to maintain narrative coherence if key plot points are revealed at odd hours during a weekday afternoon? Even if the people who missed the show read recaps, they lose out on the shared, emotional impact of watching something happen in real time. It’s the types of emotions that trigger nostalgia, which WWE bases the majority of its marketing upon.
Then the Khashoggi killing happened, and these narrative issues paled in comparison to the more ethical ones. At first, the company tried to play both sides. While not breaking off the deal entirely, WWE certainly distanced itself from it. All references to Saudi Arabia were removed from American advertisements for these events. And for a time, it seemed that WWE would try to appease all fans by making the Saudi Arabia shows appear important, but ultimately inconsequential to the larger narrative.
On the first three massive shows, for example, there were no world title changes. The focus was on spectacle–of creating dream matches between aging legends like Goldberg, The Undertaker, and Shawn Michaels. These feuds had small builds on television, but once they were done, they had no greater bearing on the weekly storyline or arc toward Wrestlemania. They were framed as exactly what they were: a series of publicity stunts–house shows, which are typically outside the established canon.
This created a different problem, in that it broke up the weekly narrative flow and led to oversaturation of the product–the Elimination Chamber (2020) PPV is scheduled for the following weekend after Super Showdown–but at least WWE fans who didn’t support the Saudi deal could easily avoid its shows, and create a headcanon in which they do not exist.
But at Crown Jewel (2019), the narrative firewall fell; “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt defeated Seth Rollins to become the WWE Universal Champion. Slowly, but surely, these events are becoming canonical PPVs, making them harder for fans to ignore. Title changes, which are inevitably replayed and promoted across WWE’s media empire, demonstrate that WWE is testing the waters.
Saudi Arabia intended for this WWE partnership to function as a platform for their Saudi Vision 2030 plan. WWE has reached the point where they are working Saudi Arabia back into the storylines. Is WWE figuring that enough time has passed? Because it hasn’t. A man was dismembered and carried out of the Saudi Consulate in pieces.
The fans should recognize and vocalize how bizarre and uncouth WWE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia continues to be. The wrestling press should continue to hold the company’s feet to the fire, or have a media blackout on covering these events. And maybe the next time the fans want to chant “What?” or “CM Punk,” they could chant for some accountability instead.
Editor’s note: GameSpot does not do live coverage, reviews, or recaps of WWE’s events in Saudi Arabia.
Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot’s parent company
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