Opinion: WWE — a company obsessed with their public image — is taking a huge gamble by not responding to recent allegations against Saudi Arabia.
On November 2nd, 2018, WWE will be returning to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Crown Jewel, the second large-scale event in a new 10 year, multi-million dollar deal between WWE and Saudi Arabia. It’s a huge show that WWE is packing a lot of star power into, featuring the in-ring return of wrestling legend Shawn Michaels for the first time in almost nine years, Daniel Bryan vying for the WWE Championship for the first time in four years against AJ Styles, and a massive triple threat main event for the Universal Championship between champion Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, and Brock Lesnar.
It’s also mired in controversy, once again. This time, though, the company finds itself in the middle of an international scandal. Jamal Khashoggi, a permanent United States resident, Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi government, disappeared on October 2nd, last seen entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi was there to obtain documentation allowing him to marry his fiancée. He has not been seen since — various police reports state they believe he was tortured and killed inside the consulate. As the evidence piles up, the world at large is nearly certain that was the case.
WWE’s last event in the country, Greatest Royal Rumble, left a sour taste in fans’ mouths as the show featured no women on the card in the middle of the “Women’s Evolution,” a movement within the company to more prominently feature its popular female talent. The show also felt like one giant pro-Saudi propaganda piece, featuring multiple video packages interviewing happy Saudi women, and an in-ring segment where brothers Shawn and Ariya Daivari, former and current WWE talent respectively, played the role of angry heels while billed as being from Iran (Ariya and Shawn are Iranian-American, but were born in Minnesota) and were vanquished by proud Saudi prospects. The segment was accused of pushing anti-Iran propaganda at the show, though whether you viewed the segment as Saudi propaganda or just another vaguely nationalist wrestling segment using patriotism to garner “cheap heat” likely depends on how familiar you are with pro wrestling.
(WWE is running their first-ever all-women pay-per-view event, Evolution, five days before Crown Jewel. Though what at one time seemed like a highly progressive, laudable concept now feels more like damage control.)
Saudi Arabia has never been a bastion of human rights, but the United States government itself has been cutting deals with them for years, including the current administration. And while the daily goings on in the White House can feel like an episode of Monday Night Raw at times, few reasonable people would place a higher moral obligation on World Wrestling Entertainment than the government of a world power. Included in those few people, however, is WWE itself.
For years, WWE has been a company obsessed with rehabilitating their public image. If the late ’90s and early 2000s were about doing anything to garner ratings, public perception be damned, the current age of WWE is all about doing anything they can to be perceived as a company that is respected and noble, to counteract the “carny” image those three letters invoke when most people think of them. Stephanie McMahon, one of the most powerful people in the organization, serves as its Chief Brand Officer, and tirelessly promotes WWE as a caring, humanitarian brand whose only mission beyond putting on world-class live performances is giving back to the community that has made them such a juggernaut. Signing a 10 year deal worth many millions of dollars to put on shows in Saudi Arabia seems to fly in the face of that philanthropy.
Things get even more bizarre when you consider WWE’s current connections to US politics. Yes, the sitting United States President is a WWE Hall of Famer, but beyond that interesting (if not frightening) piece of trivia, there are other bad optics for WWE here. Let it not be forgotten that the mayor of a United States county — Glenn “Kane” Jacobs — is in the main event of the show. Or that Linda McMahon, Vince’s wife and former CEO of WWE, is in the president’s cabinet, serving as the Administrator of the Small Business Administration.
US Senators from both sides of the aisle have raised concerns about WWE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Private enterprise is private enterprise, different than a governmental entity,” Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told news outlet 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.”
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also chimed in, definitively saying “There should be a pause” in WWE’s dealings with the country. “I want a complete rethinking of our relationship,” Graham added.
There is something to be said about the state of US politics when professional wrestling claims so many connections to it, but regardless, WWE remains largely apolitical as a corporate entity (outside of being patriotic to the point of jingoistic). However, this situation should absolutely be an exception. WWE’s association with the Saudi government seemed suspect back in April when Greatest Royal Rumble was announced. Now, in the face of mounting evidence that Saudi Arabia murdered a United States resident, it’s starting to look downright criminal. If WWE cares at all about doing the right thing — whether or not their ultimate motivation is making sure their stock price continues to rise — they will cut their losses on this deal and back out of Crown Jewel.
For their part, WWE released a statement to the media simply saying, “We are currently monitoring the situation.” What exactly that means is unclear, though it’s hard to read it as anything but “we will put off doing anything as long as we can to see if this all blows over.” Call me an optimist, but I have faith that WWE will ultimately do the right thing if the facts on this situation become undeniable. But this is only year one of a highly controversial 10 year deal. The problem isn’t going away — by all logic, it’s only going to get worse.