WWE's Deal with Saudi Arabia

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In 2018, the largest wrestling promotion in the world, the WWE, signed a 10-year deal with Saudi Sports Authority. The deal is believed to bring in a huge amount of money for the company, estimated to be around $100 million annually, for just two shows in a year (Thurston). This has sparked a lot of controversy owing to Saudi Arabia’s widely criticized human rights violations. Most of the criticism is for the company making a hypocritical move by ‘selling out’ to a country where, women do not have the same rights as men, in spite of flaunting their women’s revolution for the past few years. The criticism gained mainstream coverage when WWE decided to go ahead with a show in Saudi, as per plan days after the heinous murder of American Journalist Jamal Khashoggi (‘Assassination of Jamal Khushoggi’). Even today, several wrestlers refused to participate in these shows while some are not allowed due to various reasons. WWE has been able to make slight amends but continues to draw criticism for honoring the deal and turning a blind eye to several controversies that have stemmed from this partnership, over the past two years.

WWE was conducting events in Saudi Arabia since 2014. However, it was since 2018, after this ten-year deal, that the company came under immense scrutiny for its decision (‘WWE in Saudi Arabia’). This was mainly because of the enormous scale at these events were conducted, and how openly immoral many people thought them to be. The first event was held in April 2018. It was a marquee show featuring the company’s most prominent wrestlers of both, the present and the past. Massive names such as John Cena, The Undertaker and Triple H were part of the show. The final match was a 50-man Royal Rumble, the first of its kind. This event was noticeable for its grandeur and stacked card of matches, one matched only by the grandest wrestling show: WrestleMania. Despite its grandeur, it was widely criticized for having no women’s matches. There were people who opined differently though. Some felt that differences in culture should be accepted and that one point of disagreement should not cause nations and entities to absolutely cut ties with one another. On similar lines, Triple H, a legendary wrestler and an executive of WWE said, “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 effect change anywhere by staying away from it. While women are not competing in the event, we have had discussions about that and hope that, in the next few years they will be” (Wells).

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Thus, there were mixed opinions for this deal to begin with. WWE’s inability to have women wrestle was in stark contrast to their recent promotion of women, but at the same time, it was not illegal to do so. After all, several American and multi-national companies have trade relations with Saudi Arabia. There may be difference of culture and standards of equality, but should they be considered significant enough to not interact with Saudi Arabia is debatable. Nevertheless, the show also met with mixed reviews from fans and critics and the debate calmed down until erupting again, much more turbulently in November.

October of 2018 saw the heinous killing of journalist Jamal Khushoggi by a group of 15 Saudi assassins. The event led to global criticism of the Saudi government with several firms cutting ties or straining relationships with the nation. WWE had an event scheduled in Saudi for November and decided to go ahead with it despite vehement opposition and mainstream criticism. WWE’s chief brand officer, Stephannie McMahon justified the company’s actions citing it as strictly a business decision to fulfil contractual allegations (Jayaram). WWE, however, did condemn the killing and made absolutely no reference of the venue while telecasting the event.

This time, a female announcer was allowed, but was covered from head to toe. Wrestlers such as Kevin Owens, John Cena and Daniel Bryan refused to take part (Grenoble and Martinez). Owens was reportedly taking a stand for is good friend Sami Zayn, who was barred from these events due to his Syrian decent (Martinez). The other two were speculated to be upset with the human rights violations. Further controversy came as a result of Knox County Mayor, Glenn Jacobs, better known as the legendary wrestler Kane, participating in the event. Nevertheless, he donated, $100,000 of his earnings that night to Knoxville’s Public Safety. (Snodgrass). This time, the criticism was much more profound and much more overwhelming. It negatively impacted WWE’s viewership as well. Fans and critics were furious at the sheer lack of conscience shown by the company and were justified in doing so. They also unanimously criticized the event for its matches and story.

The third event took place in May 2019 and was most noticeable for its unfortunate main event featuring the Undertaker and Goldberg. The match went wrong and both men, well in their fifties, ended up accidentally hurting each other. WWE was again panned for making aged wrestlers wrestle on the behest of the Saudi authorities. They were thus, putting their health at risk, just for economic benefits. WWE also tried to have women wrestle on the show but failed to get approval from Saudi’s Sports authority. Thus, it was another step in selling out. The performers were also paid higher than usual and lured to perform. It was another step, in compromising ethics for money.

WWE finally succeeded to have women wrestle in their fourth event. The match was heavily promoted as historic by the company but was met with mixed response. Some saw this as a huge step in progress as the company had shown. Others such as revered journalist Dave Meltzer were less than pleased. People also saw this as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to whitewash its image and the announcers of the match were chided for having to praise Saudi Arabia during the match. Overall, it was a step towards betterment, but far from enough.

The fourth event was marred with the controversy of a flight of wrestlers being hauled by Saudi Arabia over some payment issues to WWE (‘WWE in Saudi Arabia’). This further led to several investors filing cases against WWE for their ties with Saudi Arabia. However, it also featured a women’s match, this time with a championship title on the line. Thus, progress was made but tainted by further controversy.

Overall, this deal does reflect WWE’s efforts as it eventually succeeded in having women wrestle. It may not have exactly been for the greater good or facilitating progress, but it does, to a certain extent, take away the pivotal initial point of criticism. On the other hand, the case of WWE not cancelling the event even in the light of the atrocious crime reflects a conflict of legal obligation and moral grounding. It is an example of a business, being contractually and financially obliged to work for a universally criticized entity. It reflects the larger problem, of businesses not being morally conscious. Laws, regulations and contracts are for what is legal, but what is legal and what is obligated is often not what is moral. Money and profit drive much of the primarily capitalist world today and it is sad that often they bind firms and individuals or lure them enough to engage in unethical business practices.

To conclude, this deal has had shades of grey and been a kind of a mixed bag. A lot of companies and countries deal with Saudi and did not cease to deal when the unfortunate murder incident took place. However, that is no ethical justification for doing so. In my opinion, WWE deserve to be complemented for being able to have women wrestle on Saudi shows, albeit in a much more covered attire than usual. At least, it is a move in the right direction. However, their continuation of the deal as well as several incidents of them taking impractical decisions, dictated by the Saudi Authorities reflects a compromise of righteousness for financial benefits. As an Indian, being neutral to both, the United States and Saudi Arabia, this problem is far bigger than any company’s or nation’s policies in my opinion. It reflects the business Dharma of seeking or maximizing profits, albeit within the legal frameworks being favored over the Dharma of being righteous or conscience driven. This is a consequence of widespread capitalism and comes which unfortunately comes to prominence only when events such as WWE hosting the show, despite the murder take place. Are the rules and laws appropriate or should there be a provision to compromise them when they conflict morals? It is true that WWE could have ended the deal there and then, but it is also true that would have caused severe losses to the public company and the decision was the right business one. Thus, what is best for business is often immoral. The world needs to reconsider its rules if it wants to resolve this conflict of laws and morality.


  1. Thurston, Brandon, “Wrestlenomics Pro Wrestling Industry Report”, Full Year 2019, payhip.com, Web, 7 July 2019.
  2. Wells, Adam, “Triple H Defends Lack of Female Superstars at WWE Greatest Royal Rumble”, bleacherreport.com, 24 April 2018, Web, 7 July 2020.
  3. Snodgrass, Jeremy, “Kane Explains Why He Worked Crown Jewel Despite Controversy”, comicbook.com, 10 January 2019, Web, 7 July 2020.
  4. Meltzer, Dave. “November 4, 2019 Observer Newsletter: WWE financials, Crown Jewel, More”. Wrestling Observer Newsletter, f4wonline.com, Retrieved 6 November 2019, Web, 7 July 2020.
  5. “WWE in Saudi Arabia”, en.wikipedia.org, last edited 30 June 2020, Web, 7 July 2020.
  6. “Assassination of Jamal Khushoggi”, en.wikipedia.org, last edited 7 July 2020, Web, 7 July 2020.
  7. Jayaram, Nishant, “WWE News: Stephanie McMahon Reveals the Reason Why WWE Is Going Ahead with Crown Jewel”, Sportskeeda.com, 29 October 2018, Web, 7 July 2020.
  8. Martinez, Phillip, “Kevin Owens Won’t Go Too Super Showdown in Saudi Arabia: Report”, newsweek.com, 22 May 2019, Web, 7 July 2020.
  9. Grenoble, Ryan, “WWE Stars John Cena, Daniel Bryan Not Going to Saudi Arabia Event”, huffingtonpost.in, 31 October 2018, Web, 7 July 2018.
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