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Volume 64 Issue 4 cover story image. Boxer standing in the middle of a boxing ring holding a flag

WWE in hot water due to Saudi partnership

By Joshua Williams 

WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) decided to not cancel one of their most recent show in Saudi Arabia despite being in hot water with the U.S. government after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was allegedly murdered by an Saudi Arabian hit team.
Although WWE’s Crown Jewel took place on November 2 at the King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh, many news outlets have criticized WWE for not immediately canceling their show after Washington Post journalist Khashoggi was found dead at the Saudi consulate on October 2. The Trump administration and other U.S. politicians have since warned of “severe consequences” if evidence was found linking Khashoggi’s murder to the Saudi Arabian government. WWE issued a brief statement on October 11, which simply stated, “We are currently monitoring the situation.” Khashoggi’s murder took place less than a week before WWE issued the statement.

WWE’s Crown Jewel is part of a 10-year partnership between WWE and Saudi Arabia, most specifically the Saudi General Sports Authority, in support of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s social and economic reform program. The deal is reportedly due to WWE’s financial success after launching their own streaming service back in 2014.

With WWE deciding to continue on with the show despite the negative feedback from news outlets and the public at large, one has to wonder where does this put fans of the WWE who have shown their loyalty to the product since its inception?

This isn’t the first time this year that WWE has had some negative feedback when it came to its partnership with Saudi Arabia. Back in April of this year, WWE promoted The Greatest Royal Rumble, the first event of WWE’s partnership with Saudi Arabia which took place at the King Abdullah International Stadium. While the event was a financial success, most attention was focused on the lack of representation for women with female wrestlers being barred from competing inside Saudi Arabia.

Although the country has long denied rights to women, WWE still decided to air promotional pieces of local women in Saudi Arabi during the show, expressing their thoughts regarding gender equality and the perceived progression the country was experiencing. Veteran wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer criticized WWE’s decision to air such video packages on an episode of the Wrestling Observer (is it a podcast, radio show, or internet show?), calling it “a uncomfortable political statement” rather than something that adds to the quality of the show.

WWE has since tried to circumvent the issue by creating an event dedicated to women’s wrestling called WWE Evolution. The event was the first pay-per-view event to feature only women with the likes of Trish Stratus, Lita, and former UFC women’s champion and now current WWE women’s champion Ronda Rousey being part of that bill. WWE decided to set Evolution just five days before their return in Saudi Arabia.

And yet through all of this back and forth with maintaining their image, WWE hasn’t driven away their loyal fanbase. For decades, WWE has catered to their audience by showcasing their larger than life wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin, and allowing these wrestlers to interact with the fans. This interaction with the fans has created a unbreakable bond, one that has only been threatened by the age of the internet.

Indeed, with many fans of WWE now plugged into the internet, keeping news from breaking out of their main headquarters in Connecticut has been difficult for the world’s preeminent professional wrestling company. Before the internet, WWE had the ability to lock down which news would and wouldn’t leak out to the public. However, today’s fans are able to simply click on one link and discover something that they weren’t supposed to. If WWE decides to continue their partnership with Saudi Arabia, one has to wonder whether their decisions will begin to drive their fans away, if it already hasn’t.

WWE fans have been in this situation before, threatening to abandon the product they love by using Twitter to voice their displeasure. This was demonstrated the most back in 2014, when current movie star and former wrestler Dave Bautista was criticized by fans of the WWE for taking a main event spot away from one of their favorite wrestlers in Daniel Bryan. WWE had a handle on the situation after they rewrote their scripts to add Bryan into the main event match to one of their biggest shows of the year, WrestleMania.

WWE uses its power and influence to keep their fans happy but can they do it while also fighting off bad press? So far, fans of the WWE have only mildly voiced their concerns regarding the Saudi Arabia issue. Perhaps when the news outlets begin to attack the fans for not abandoning the product is when the fans will start to rebel but for now everyone seems to be on board. Everyone but the press and the government that is.

Last updated 5/29/2020 7:55 AM