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WWE's Propaganda Spectacle
As MBS reasserts the kingdom as a regional power, WWE continues to be paid handsomely to produce his propaganda shows.
In the world of professional wrestling, where spectacle meets athletic talent, the alliance between World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Saudi Arabia has proven to be a ring fraught with ethical dilemmas. Since forging their partnership in 2018, the global entertainment behemoth has navigated a tumultuous journey that aligns high-profile events with the kingdom’s ambitious goals.
And as Saudi’s political aspirations continue to evolve, the WWE adapts in tandem.
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On the May 12 edition of SmackDown, a WWE program that airs on Friday nights on Fox, the organization announced that Sami Zayn & Kevin Owens would defend the WWE Tag team titles against undisputed champion Roman Reigns & Solo Sikoa at a May 27 supershow in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia dubbed Night of Champions. The announcement came as a surprise to wrestling fans, as Zayn had not performed on any of the shows WWE’s put on in Saudi Arabia since they announced a partnership with the Kingdom’s General Authority for Entertainment five years ago.
Reports had long suggested that Zayn—a Canadian wrestler of Syrian descent who is among the WWE’s biggest stars—had not been involved in events in Saudi Arabia due to the kingdom’s historically strained relations with Syria. Apart from his heritage, Zayn has also been involved in humanitarian efforts in Syria, including a fundraiser for medical aid that was announced during one of the WWE’s events in Jeddah in 2019.
While WWE’s decision to schedule Zayn—whose real name is Rami Sebei—on the upcoming Saudi show remains unclear, it is likely a reflection of Saudi Arabia’s improved relations with Syria and its efforts to assert itself as a regional leader.
In April 2023, Saudi Arabia and Syria announced plans to reopen their embassies and resume flights following an 11-year diplomatic freeze. A month later, the Arab League—a 22-member organization founded in 1945 to promote regional cooperation—readmitted Syria following a 12-year period of isolation. The league suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government cracked down on mass protests against his rule, an uprising that ultimately descended into a civil war.
Most recently, al-Assad attended the Arab Summit for the first time since his country’s suspension in 2011. The president gave a speech reflecting on the “historic opportunity” to address issues across the region.
“I hope that it marks the beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity among us, for peace in our region, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction,” al-Assad told attendees.“It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage their own affairs.”
Al-Assad’s return to the fold signalled the end of his period of isolation, as well the shifting politics in the region and its leading actors, including Saudi Arabia. It also emphasized the kingdom’s growing ambition to become a become a regional player capable of opposing the West and its foreign policy goals.
While WWE was quick to adapt to Saudi Arabia’s ever-changing politics, this isn’t the first time that the wrestling promotion has evolved along with the kingdom’s goals.
Since 2016, Saudi Arabia has spent billions on high-profile international sports and entertainment events. The strategic investments are part of the kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ masterplan that aims to reduce Saudi’s economic dependence on oil but it also serves as a multi-pronged soft power strategy that includes boosting tourism and other economic sectors, diplomacy, and reputation laundering.
Saudi now hosts a yearly Formula 1 grand prix, the world’s richest horse race, as well as a professional golf league to rival the PGA tour. The country’s sovereign wealth fund also financed the purchase of Newcastle United, a soccer team in the English Premier League. However, it was WWE’s penchant for scripted theatrics that offered an ideal platform for Saudi propaganda.
In March 2018, WWE announced its “10-year strategic multiplatform partnership” with the kingdom, whereby the WWE earns approximately $50 million for each event held in Saudi Arabia. The first event in the agreement was the Greatest Royal Rumble—a spin-off from WWE's annual Royal Rumble event that included 50 participants instead of the traditional 30—which took place the following month in Jeddah. The event was essentially a five-hour propaganda tribute for a theocratic monarchy and its so-called reforms.
After airing a series of tourism ads for Jeddah and infomercials about life in the kingdom, WWE aired a segment that promoted anti-Iran propaganda and sectarian strife at Saudi’s behest. The segment involved a pair of Iranian wrestlers waving their country’s flag being dispatched by a group of Saudi wrestlers to the delight of the crowd in attendance. Not only was the segment xenophobic, it also weaponized religious tensions in favor of pro-Saudi agitprop. Ariya Daivari, one of the Iranian performers involved, revealed that he received death threats from Iranians for his role in the segment. He later claimed that the segment was Bin Salman’s idea.
“From what I was told, that was requested from the Saudi Prince. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. He booked the show,” Davari said. “At the end of the day, it was his idea, and for me, particularly being fairly new at the time, you’re not gonna say no to stuff. All this Saudi stuff was a big deal. It was a big-money deal. Backstage, they made it seem like how important these Saudi shows are to the company.”
WWE hosted its second show in partnership with Saudi Arabia on Nov. 2, 2018—exactly one month following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The organization faced significant backlash from the press for proceeding with the event, especially during a time when the international community appeared to be distancing itself from the kingdom. Even Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, who purchased the WWE earlier this year, returned a $400 million investment made by Saudi’s state-run Public Investment Fund—a decision that led to him walking around with bodyguards in fear for his life. For the WWE, however, the decision to stay the course was financially-driven.
“This was an incredibly tough decision, given that heinous act, but in the end, it was strictly a business decision,” Stephanie McMahon said at the time.
It is likely that WWE’s commitment to its agreement with Saudi Arabia during a particularly tense public relations scandal helped normalize relations with the kingdom. It also yet another attempt to present a facade of progress—no controversy was too great to spin.
This was particularly evident when the WWE began holding events with female talent, who had been barred from performing in Saudi Arabia until 2019. While the organization presented the change as evidence of the kingdom’s reforms, Saudi Arabia has continued to repress women’s rights and target women’s rights activists and movements.
While Saudi Arabia has made some strides in its treatment of women, including eliminating some restrictions imposed through male guardianship, it failed to abolish the guardianship system in its entirety. The kingdom has also continued to imprison women for peaceful expressions in support of women’s rights and imposed travel bans on women activists like Loujain al-Hathloul.
As the spotlight shines on the WWE's enduring alliance with Saudi Arabia, the wrestling juggernaut finds itself caught between its pursuit of financially-rewarding entertainment and the political overtones of its powerful benefactor. And as Bin Salman attempts to reassert the kingdom as a regional power by using his place atop an energy giant in an oil-dependent world consumed by war, the WWE will continue to produce his propaganda shows and be paid handsomely for its efforts.
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