Saudi money writes scripts

While American rednecks have spent the past two years bemoaning the encroachment of protests into their beloved National Football League, they’ve at least had trusty professional wrestling to provide a sanctuary in which to dwell.

Bar flirting with the magnetism of nationalist ideals — think Middle Eastern or Russian caricatures designed to elicit boos from the crowd — World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has deliberately kept a distance from anything that might be described as “political”.

Until now.

Dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder allegedly at the hands of rogue Saudi agents in Turkey has ensured the United States and all its entities can no longer continue its business-as-usual dealings with that country. Multinational corporations have been forced to confront if, how, when and to what extent they cut interests with the kingdom.

WWE is a prime example.

READ MORE: There’s no turning back for UFC after phoney turn

Early this year the world’s premium sports entertainment company signed a 10-year strategic partnership with the Saudi General Sports Authority — some estimations puts its worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The deal would entail WWE travelling to Saudi Arabia regularly to put on extravagant, heavily promoted shows.

Ironically, the fake show has been threatened by real issues. Widespread calls have banged at WWE’s door to cancel the long-term deal and cut the upcoming event, Crown Jewel, scheduled to take place in Riyadh on Friday evening.

WWE refused to do so. Despite describing what happened to Khashoggi as a “heinous crime”, the company’s statement said it would not back out of the contractual obligations that had been committed to. WWE said this weekend’s show must go on.

That’s strike one against the company; how they handle themselves on the night might bring another. The first ceremony of the Saudi pact, held in April and termed the Greatest Royal Rumble, seemed like a torture mechanism out of the film A Clockwork Orange designed to dissuade us of negative thoughts about the kingdom.

For more than three hours, wrestling’s biggest stars subjected us to a disturbing orgy of propaganda as they seemed to challenge themselves to see just how far they could shove the Saudi phallus down their throats. At every turn were oxymoronic ­mentions of how progressive the monarchy was and how it had created a beautiful country. WWE icon John Cena even delivered an extended monologue about the “unmatched hospitality” extended by Saudi Arabia.


Even though that gross pandering, not to mention the fact that women in the roster weren’t allowed to compete, earned WWE plenty of flak, the ­evening was largely considered a success for those on either side of the equation.

In the context of Khashoggi’s murder, taking that attitude in the Crown Jewel event will be nothing short of disgusting. This is one moment the West can agree on.

Cena, to his credit, has refused to repeat his antics and will not be travelling to the kingdom. The rest of the roster, though, including major names such as Randy Orton and Ronda Rousey, have stated they see nothing wrong with flying east.

Even Kane, who is a mayor in real life, which is hilarious in itself, will help to welcome legend Shawn Michaels back to the ring.

In all likelihood the script­writers will decide it’s best for the commentators and everyone handed a mic to pretend they don’t know where they’re ­acting and not to make excessive mention of their hosts.

Ultimately, the Saudi leaders and the reported 60 000 in attendance at the King Saud University Stadium will have a good time on Friday. That can’t be stopped.

What can be is WWE’s support of a regime that silences its critics in the harshest way possible. Wrestling is scripted, yes, but the message it sends to its millions of fans is very real.

Perhaps chairperson and chief executive Vince McMahon will cut his losses after this weekend and find a way to wiggle his money-grabbing paws out of the Saudi ­honeypot. If he doesn’t, WWE may learn that even fans who like watching grown men compete in spandex are capable of standing up against injustice.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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