On January 28, WWE added a new chapter to the women’s evolution when they held the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match, closing out the show ahead of the men’s Rumble. The match culminated in the debut of Ronda Rousey, who was appropriately treated as one of the biggest signings in WWE history. On April 27, WWE will reverse any strides made at the event by holding Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia, a country where women wrestlers are not allowed to perform, and female fans cannot attend the show without male accompaniment. Until under a year ago, they weren’t even allowed to drive.
At WrestleMania 34, Finn Balor made his entrance wearing a new GLAAD-approved rainbow Balor Club shirt, insisting that “Balor Club is for everyone,” flanked by dozens of LGBTQ+ fans cheering him on. At the Greatest Royal Rumble in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Finn will compete for the Intercontinental Championship in a country where gay men and women are forced to hide their true identities or face penalty of death.
Greatest Royal Rumble is an odd event for many reasons: It shares the name of one of the most famous and beloved pay-per-views of the year that already happened in 2018, just nebulously “Greater” than the previous Rumble. It’s a massive stadium event just three weeks after WrestleMania, the massive stadium event to end all massive stadium events. It’s a six hour event happening at 12 noon ET on a Friday. And on top of all this, it’s increasingly rare that WWE holds a pay-per-view event outside of the United States at all these days, let alone in the Middle East.
But strangest of all is how the event’s very existence runs contra to everything WWE has purported itself to stand for in recent years, namely equality and diversity. They’ve made strides in the past two or three years that should be genuinely commended — women regularly main event shows and are treated as real stars, there is an openly gay member of the main roster without her character turning into a stereotype, one of their bigger stars is positioned as an LGBTQ+ ally, and just last month they listened to criticism and reneged on naming their women’s WrestleMania Battle Royal match after the Fabulous Moolah, a despicable pimp who abused talent and set women’s wrestling back 50 years.
Running a massive event — most likely the second largest of the year, behind only WrestleMania 34 — in a regressive, oppressive country such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a dark stain on WWE’s surprisingly inclusive and positive agenda. It’s an embarrassment, and the only real way to defend the decision is “well, they are giving them a ton of money.” At the end of the day, making money is the reason WWE exists, and it’s foolish to look at Vince McMahon’s often insensitive company as some sort of moral compass. But in recent years WWE has seemed to truly turn over a new leaf, so to take this huge step backward is a disappointment.
As redditor GrumpyAntelope pointed out: “Can you imagine if they had done an Apartheid-era show in South Africa back in the 80’s, and shelved all of their non-white performers? We would look back on it as the absolute nadir of the company.”
Triple H recently spoke to The Independent and defended WWE’s decision to do business in such an archaic, dangerous regime, saying:
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. 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.
While, right now, women are not competing in the event, we have had discussions about that and we believe and hope that, in the next few years they will be. That is a significant cultural shift in Saudi Arabia. The country is in the middle of a shift in how it is dealing with that – the position is changing, and rights are changing, as are the way women are handled and treated in society.
We think that’s a great thing and we’re excited to be at the forefront of that change.
With all due respect to Triple H, it’s hard to fathom how WWE believes it will affect change in Saudi Arabian gender rights by putting on a massive male-only show, effectively affirming and celebrating the country’s backwards views. It’s not impossible to see where he’s coming from; Hunter is in many ways a proven smart businessman, and for all we know, WWE really does want to inspire change and is initiating that change the only way they know how. But let’s employ Occam’s Razor for a second — does a professional wrestling company really think they can be the catalyst for change of centuries-old, ultra-conservative religious views in the Middle East, or did the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia just dangle millions of riyals in front of WWE’s faces until they couldn’t turn it down?
WWE signed a 10 year deal with Saudi Arabia’s top sports body, so to give them the benefit of the doubt, this is only their first step into the situation. Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss holding the company’s first women’s match in the Middle East last year elicited “this is hope” chants; maybe in a few years that hope will carry the women to a norm-busting match in Saudi Arabia. The unfortunate truth, however, is that a sports entertainment company putting on wrestling matches is probably not going to institute a change in Sharia law. It’s hard not to see this bizarre move as purely money-driven, disheartening and hypocritical for a company that has positioned itself as progressive.