When “The Greatest Royal Rumble” wrestling event kicked off in Jeddah’s King Abdullah International Stadium last April, it marked a new decade-long deal between World Wrestling Entertainment and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Some 50,000 people came to watch, with national anthems played for both Saudi Arabia and the United States. WWE promoted the event for weeks on its popular weekly programming, widely distributed throughout the world, and the Saudi government requested the appearance of officials’ favorite wrestlers.
The event was capped with what was billed as the first-ever 50-man Royal Rumble match. Production values were high, there was a massive entrance stage, there were pyrotechnics and a wide range of special guests and WWE legends. It was an event on the scale usually reserved only for the company’s biggest event of the year, WrestleMania.
But for the Saudi officials who watched from ringside, some sitting on couches, some wandering about in view of cameras, the most interesting part of the show may have come when brothers Ariya and Shawn Daivari, who are Americans of Iranian descent, performed in a segment where they interrupted prospective Saudi wrestlers who participated in an earlier WWE tryout.
In a style reminiscent of WrestleMania’s annual patriotism (a style arguably adopted in many respects by Donald Trump at his campaign rallies) the Daivari brothers came to the ring as readily identified villains waving the flag of Saudi arch-enemy Iran, inciting boos from the audience. Ariya took the microphone and shouted at the Saudi trainees, “You’re not real athletes. Real athletes like the Daivari brothers come from the strongest nation in the world: Iran!” The brothers were eventually run off by the trainees to cheers. Ariya later reported receiving death threats due to the segment, and was indignant that a fictional portrayal elicited such a response.
The event itself also celebrated the Saudi regime. At one point on a break between matches WWE commentators threw to a video that was part tourism ad highlighting the changes in society and crediting none other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Another such event, called “Crown Jewel,” is scheduled for November 2 in Riyadh. The criticism the WWE events in Saudi Arabia has received have been elevated recently due to close and controversial links between the crown prince, widely known as MBS, and Trump’s inner circle – and due to mounting allegations that MBS ordered the detention and possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last week.
That WWE received a massive payment for its shows from the Saudis and that it has also been a massive contributor to the Trump Foundation suddenly have come under greater scrutiny. Trump soon after his inauguration in 2017 made Linda McMahon, the former WWE President, two-time candidate for U.S. Senate, and wife of WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, the head of the Small Business Administration.
Amid the murder and torture allegations directed at the Saudi regime, four U.S. Senators on Thursday pressured WWE to think again about its relationship with the kingdom. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the conservative website Independent Journal Review, “There should be a pause” in WWE’s business dealings with Saudi Arabia.
“Private enterprise is private enterprise, different than a governmental entity,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told IJR, “but because [Linda McMahon] is part of the president’s cabinet, it falls into the grey area where the administration really should give it some thought and maybe even prevail upon them not doing it.”
In the latest statement provided to The Daily Beast from a WWE spokesperson, the company said: “We are currently monitoring the situation.”
WWE’s public financial statements analyzed by The Daily Beast indicate the company received at least $40 million following the April event, way above most wrestling cards WWE puts on in the U.S.
In March, WWE and the Saudi General Sports Authority announced the agreement for the wrestling company to run live events periodically in Saudi Arabia over the course of 10 years, supposedly in support of Vision 2030, MBS’s campaign to enhance the nation’s economy and worldwide perception.
By a conservative estimate, WWE received at least $40 million from the Saudi government during the second quarter of this year. This estimate is based on WWE’s latest quarterly report filed with the SEC, which shows a large increase in revenue in Q2 reported for the ‘Other’ segment within the company’s Media division, out of line with the normal growth pattern of that segment. In the last four quarters ‘Other’ grew 33 percent. But in Q2 this year WWE landed an extra $45 million, giving that segment a total of $60.6 million, five times the revenue the segment had in the same quarter the prior year ($11.9 million).
WWE won’t reveal the specific financial terms of the deal. When asked for details during the July 26 Q2 investors’ conference call, WWE Co-President George Barrios confirmed revenue related to the Saudi Arabia event was reported in the ‘Other’ segment but added, “We’re not going to talk about how much.”
To put our $40 million minimum estimate in some perspective the largest-grossing single event for ticket sales WWE ran in its history was for WrestleMania in 2016, generating $17.3 million. Overall, the company reported $801 million in revenue for the full year of 2017.
Trump and the McMahon family that runs WWE are more than friendly. Trump hosted two WrestleManias in Atlantic City in 1988 and 1989. After Trump became a reality TV star, the McMahons teamed up with Trump again in 2007 for another WrestleMania and the ”Battle of the Billionaires.” Vince McMahon and Trump backed opposing wrestlers, which resulted in Vince getting his head shaved, per match stipulations. WWE inducted Trump into their Hall of Fame in 2013.
For years leading up to Linda McMahon's appointment at the Small Business Administration, the McMahons donated millions to the Trump Foundation and the political action committee that worked to elect him to the presidency.
With all the frills of “The Greatest Royal Rumble” there was one glaring exception: no women, and women are not expected to appear at “Crown Jewel” next month either. The Saudi General Sports Authority even made a public apology for an “indecent scene involving women” after a video played on stadium screens during the April event that showed images of female WWE wrestlers in their normal wrestling attire.
Additionally, female spectators were only allowed to attend “The Greatest Royal Rumble” if accompanied by a man. Laws restricting women from attending events at sports stadiums altogether were softened for the first time earlier this year.
Meanwhile WWE is claiming it’s in the middle of a “women’s evolution” as it attempts to take a more serious, athletic approach to women’s wrestling. Perhaps to compensate for another upcoming men-only event, WWE is holding its first-ever women-only event, five days earlier, on October 28 in Uniondale, New York.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have chronicled ongoing Saudi human rights violations, including imprisonment of critics, suppression of free speech, attacks on on LGBT people and airstrikes on civilians in Yemen. In August a Saudi airstrike on a school bus in Yemen killed at least 40 children.
However, prior to the Khashoggi controversy, it was the issue around women’s participation in the ring and in the audience that received the most criticism leading up to “The Greatest Royal Rumble.”
In an interview from April, Paul “Triple H” Levesque (both an executive and occasional performer) was defensive about WWE’s decision to run women-free shows in Saudi Arabia:
“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.”
Levesque insisted WWE could be part of the change toward a more liberal society:
“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.”
The question of the absence of women on the Saudi events came up again during a conference call in May where Co-President Michelle Wilson appealed to cultural relativism.
“There are many countries around the world where we perform where we’re respectful of the cultures that are there, but we certainly hope to be part of the change moving forward,” Wilson said before pivoting to point out that WWE recently had its first women’s match in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in late 2017.
Following “The Greatest Royal Rumble”, commentator Corey Graves put up a cryptic Instagram post, writing, “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.” That statement got him “heat” with WWE officials, according to one report.
While nearly every male wrestler on WWE’s roster was brought to Jeddah for the April event, Sami Zayn conspicuously was not. Zayn (real name Rami Sebei) is a Canadian of Syrian descent who’s been involved with humanitarian efforts in Syria, raising money to provide food, water, shelter and medical care for Syrians affected by the civil war in the country.
WWE reportedly chose not to bring Zayn to Jeddah “to respect the local culture in Saudi Arabia.” The exact reason for Zayn’s absence from the event is unclear. Several reports in wrestling media suggested it had something to do with strained relations between the Saudi government and “Syria,” implying the Assad government, but Zayn’s work is focused on those displaced by the war, not the embattled, brutal regime.
Zayn’s image in the WWE pantheon, one he’s proud of, is an Arab who breaks stereotypes, including the classic villains of pro wrestling. And he has also been a fierce critic of the Trump administration’s policies directed at average Muslims (as opposed to Saudi royals), including the infamous travel ban. "I can't articulate how truly disgusted I am right now," he tweeted after Trump signed the initial order in January last year. Later he wrote, "The fear, hatred & division sold to us is a much bigger problem than our struggling brothers and sisters are. CHOOSE an open heart over anger."
In the U.S., Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the state where WWE is headquartered, tweeted that if the news of Khashoggi’s murder by the Saudis is true, “it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” Meanwhile U.S. President Donald Trump’s response was similar to that of WWE’s position of “monitoring” the situation.
“A lot of work is being done on that, and we’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said on Thursday, noting the economic importance of relations with the Saudis. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country on — I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others, for this country.”
With so much invested in its business deal with the Saudi government, WWE may be hoping the story about Khashoggi’s alleged murder is soon eclipsed in a fast-moving news cycle.
Known not to shy away from controversy, Vince McMahon’s wrestling company has a history of carrying on with plans despite criticism. Through 1990 and 1991 McMahon continued to present heel wrestler Sgt. Slaughter’s character as an Iraqi sympathizer even as the first Gulf War escalated. That led to sportscaster Bob Costas withdrawing from that year’s WrestleMania.
On the day of the July 7, 2005 bombings on London public transportation, when four suicide bombers killed 52 innocent civilians, WWE went ahead airing a taped program later that night that depicted supposed Arab-American wrestler Muhammad Hassan directing masked terrorists to attack legendary wrestler The Undertaker with clubs and piano wire. WWE’s broadcast partner UPN subsequently banned the Hassan character from television.
Leading up to WrestleMania this year WWE faced mounting criticism from fans for naming a battle royal match in tribute to The Fabulous Moolah, a female wrestler accused of sexually exploiting other women.
The company seems to take objections from its business partners more seriously. Only after a statement from official WrestleMania sponsor Snickers saying the move to pay tribute to Moolah was “unacceptable” did WWE back down.
Should WWE cancel its event in Jeddah, it’s possible they could reschedule the pay-per-view card for two days later on Sunday, November 4 in Manchester, England. The company is already scheduled to tape television in the Manchester Arena on following Monday and Tuesday. According to the venue’s website, the building is open on Sunday to make it a three-day run in Manchester. Doing so would allow WWE to put a positive spin on the news, giving the avid United Kingdom fan base its first pay-per-view event since 1992.
With economics being WWE’s greatest motivator, however, right now Saudi money may be telling WWE not to walk.