Saudi Arabia used the men of the World Wrestling Entertainment—owned by the husband of Trump Cabinet member Linda McMahon—to put out anti-Shiite propaganda.
The WWE's partnership with the Saudi government for a ten-year deal of supershows in the country was already controversial before last Friday’s card, dubbed The Greatest Royal Rumble. It was one thing to run shows in Saudi Arabia, which WWE has been doing for the last few years, but this was different.
WWE being unable to get women on the card was an issue (or in the stands, unless accompanied by a male guardian), but that wasn’t necessarily a new problem as much as a conspicuous one: This after female wrestlers had been allowed to perform, albeit with concessions—bodysuits covering basically everything below the neck—in Abu Dhabi a few months earlier. The Saudi government paying what has been reported as being $25 million just for this one show (or more than $65 million if you believe the British Sun tabloid) felt like a sign that they would get WWE to do whatever they wanted. Still, during the buildup to the event, there was little more than the usual hard sells and and some talk of what a beautiful city Jeddah is and how wonderful life is in the desert kingdom..
The show, though, proved blatantly, bizarrely propagandistic.
A little over two hours into the five-hour card, a video package was shown highlighting WWE’s tryouts for Saudi talent that week. Four of the best prospects were then introduced in the middle of the ring by announcer Mike Rome, who threw to them with basic questioning. After two of them spoke, the entrance music for Iranian-American WWE wrestler Ariya Daivari played, as he and his real-life brother Shawn—who it should be noted has not been on the WWE roster for over a decade—walked to the ring.
Shawn waved an Iranian flag while Rome introduced the brothers as being “from Iran”—even though Ariya’s WWE.com profile correctly lists his hometown as Minneapolis. As soon as the brothers appeared on the entrance stage, there was audible tension in the crowd, which quickly boiled over into deafening boos. While the crowd likely didn’t know about Shawn’s involvement in the WWE storyline that most closely mirrored real life terrorism, with an attack clearly designed to resemble beheading videos, it’s not as if it would help. After the Daivaris hit the ring, they trash talked the Saudi wrestlers about Iran being superior—with what was, in all honesty, pretty standard and benign verbiage—only to get bested by the local heroes in a quick confrontation.
While xenophobia in wrestling is nothing new, using a conflict rooted in religious strife absolutely is—et alone in the context of what was effectively a Saudi infomercial. On Tuesday, Ariya Daivari issued a statement trying to differentiate the angle and his on-screen persona from his real life, giving what was effectively a non-apology and later adding that he received death threats from Iranians. On Tuesday afternoon, he also blasted BBC Persia for doing a story on the in-ring segment without any mention of his statement about it.
The propaganda push had started much earlier in the card — right after the playing of the Saudi and American national anthems, an opening video, and a fireworks display, when the broadcast cut to the ringside announcers for their first on-camera. “50 superstars vying for the coveted trophy that represents historic implications,” began color commentator Corey Graves, “as we celebrate Saudi Arabia’s progression for cultural diversity and the Vision 2030 plan.” Three days later on Monday Night Raw, the WWE claimed credit for that “progression,” with lead announcer Michael Cole throwing to highlights of “the event that was the first step at bringing change to Saudi Arabia, The Greatest Royal Rumble!”
Saudi gender norms, meanwhile, ended up taking center stage over the weekend in some of the initial fallout from the show. During the event, WWE aired a video that has been all over its programming for weeks, which is designed to hammer home that, going forward, all pay-per-view events will now feature wrestlers from flagship weekly Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live television shows. The package, built around wrestlers singing/lip syncing to a song about the change, includes multiple female wrestlers, some of whom are in their in-ring outfits. Eleven hours after the show went off the air, the Saudi General Sports Authority tweeted a statement apologizing for the video. A full translation by Reddit user “comproimse,” which is consistent with the partial translations from news outlets like The Independent, reads:
The General Sport Authority would like to apologize to the viewers and attendees of last night’s WWE event that took place in Jeddah, over the indecent scene involving women that appeared as an ad before a segment. It would like to confirm its total disapproval of this, in the shadow of its commitment to eliminate anything that goes against the community’s values.
The authority has made sure to ban showing of any segment that involves women wrestling or any scenes related to it, and stipulated that to the company. The authority also disapproved any promotional stuff with pictures or videos showing women in an indecent way, and emphasized on commitment of this rule. And it’s a commitment that the authority would still commit to forever in all of its events and programs.
Meanwhile, though he was not advertised for the show and there was even a segment where he explicitly said that he wouldn’t be there, fans and media members alike were surprised when they realized that Sami Zayn wasn’t there. It surprised them since Zayn, real name Rami Sebei, is a Muslim who speaks Arabic fluently. However, he’s also of Syrian descent and has been raising money for mobile medical units to treat civilians who have been injured in the Syrian Civil War—civilians who may have been hurt by weapons provided by the Saudi government.
This was all the more conspicuous because Zayn was brought by WWE to Saudi Arabia for a three-show swing through Riyadh in 2014—long after the Saudi role in the Syrian conflict was reported worldwide. Still, he was brought on that tour—at a point before he had even joined the WWE’s main roster, instead being part of NXT, its developmental brand—and even got a showcase of sorts with Cesaro, who he always had particularly exciting matches with. While there are conflicting reports as to if being left off The Greatest Royal Rumble was WWE’s decision or Zayn’s, WWE’s vague statement on the matter appears to suggest the former:
WWE is committed to embracing individuals from all backgrounds while respecting local customs and cultural differences around the world.
While any kind of concrete financial details will not be available until WWE releases its financials for Q2 this Summer, one thing is for sure: They’re doing it again. It was announced on Friday that WWE has another Saudi supershow coming to the capital city of Riyadh in November.
Maybe WWE will be better prepared, but if The Greatest Royal Rumble was any indication, that is a lot easier said than done.