Why the WWE Should Go To Saudi Arabia

Forget the hawks who coddled the Saudis and now rattle sabers. The best medicine is cultural change.

When the torture and murder of Virginia-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi became known, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wondered if “there should be a pause” in World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) lucrative 10-year deal with Saudi Arabia. That would have included the WWE’s upcoming “Crown Jewel” event in Riyadh on November 2.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez elaborated further. “Private enterprise is private enterprise, different than a governmental entity,” Menendez said. “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.” (Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon is the wife of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon. She was CEO of the WWE until 2009.)

These are not unreasonable arguments. But do these senators have it backward?

What if they—and the WWE’s many harsh critics—are wrong about the most effective way to punish the murderous Saudi government, and also the best way to pursue a healthy path for the country and region?

For starters, maybe before pointing fingers at the WWE, U.S. government officials should stop arming and aiding the Saudi government and its barbaric war in Yemen?

Democrats are now, finally, onboard to stop this funding. Senator Rand Paul has long led a lonely fight to block U.S. taxpayer dollars from going to the despotic Saudi regime. Paul was beating this drum long before most of the rest of Washington began paying attention to Saudi Arabia’s longstanding abuses this month.

Graham never gave a second thought to stopping this funding until two weeks ago. Menendez finally came around in June to at least questioning the sale of precision-guided munitions kits to the Saudis.

In March, when a bipartisan group of senators—Democrats Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy along with Republican Mike Lee—tried to end the funding, both Graham and Menendez opposed them. Similarly, when Paul introduced an amendment in committee to stop taxpayer dollars from enabling widespread pedophilia in Afghanistan, the motion was blocked by Menendez.

It’s almost impossible to get most American politicians to turn off the spigot of foreign aid, even when U.S. money contributes to child killing and child rape.

“Amazing to hear so many politicians and pundits suddenly horrified about Saudi Arabia,” Republican Congressman Justin Amash tweeted earlier this month. “The regime there has been awful for decades—spreading extremism, committing atrocities, violating human rights. Rs and Ds in Congress repeatedly blocked efforts to halt Obama/Trump arms sales.”

The deplorable conditions in that part of the world mean the arms funding should be stopped. But they’re also why the WWE should go to Saudi Arabia next month.

Because while taxpayer dollars shouldn’t go to aid despots, private citizens from liberal democracies engaging those in oppressed nations is still the best way to bring more freedom to beleaguered peoples.

Take Cuba for instance.

Most Americans already approve of more engagement with Cuba, a communist country that for over a half century has been no friend to human rights, freedom of expression, or the press.

HBO’s left-leaning John Oliver slammed the WWE a couple of weeks ago for going to Saudi Arabia, yet once championed President Barack Obama’s decision to end the Cuban embargo in 2014.

Oliver was right the first time.

Former WWE wrestler and current Fox News contributor John Layfield made this point during a recent appearance on Fox Business: “My personal opinion is that they should go. I think the only way you promote change, like we did with Cuba—you isolate a country, all you do is impoverish that country.”

This is a point most realists and non-interventionists have long made, even as hawks have insisted on keeping sanctions tight.

Layfield has continued to blast the hypocrisy of the WWE’s critics. “Russia has this Novichok poison. They are the only ones that have ever manufactured it,” he said on Sirius XM’s Busted Open Radio. “Several guys have been poisoned, it’s obviously Russia,” he continued, referring to the June poisoning of several UK nationals. “You still have the World Cup there, and people are not boycotting the World Cup. Look at what’s going on in China…the human rights violations, and yet you go to the Olympics there and people say, ‘oh, this is so great.’”

“There’s macroeconomic reasons to not stay away from Saudi Arabia,” Layfield insisted. “If you want to do something to promote change, you allow business and free markets to go in there.”

WWE represents a chance for positive change in oppressive cultures like Saudi Arabia.

On Fox Business, Layfield noted that WWE had the first women’s wrestling match in the Middle East in 2017. Stars Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss made history in Abu Dhabi as the crowd chanted in English, “This is hope.” The wrestlers were moved to tears after the match.

Both ladies wrestled fully clothed (in the West, most wrestlers female and male are barely clothed), but women wrestling at all was a significant concession by UAE officials. When the WWE went to the United Arab Emirates, women were forbidden from performing.

The WWE in April went again to Saudi Arabia and helped usher in progress for women.

“Women and young girls, who for decades have been held back from making anything resembling social progress in Saudi Arabia, attended the Greatest Royal Rumble in droves—wearing WWE caps, carrying signs and generally having a great time at the sold-out, 62,000-plus-capacity King Abdullah Sports City Stadium,” reported ESPN in May. “Saudi women, who were given the right to attend stadium events in January for the first time—an act that previously would have led to arrest….”

“The WWE’s major push into Saudi Arabia is a prime example of the complicated clash between long-held Saudi values and the desire among many younger citizens to embrace more elements of Western culture,” ESPN continued. “The sweeping changes across Saudi Arabia…are, in part, intended to cater to its entertainment-starved 32 million citizens—65 percent of whom are under 30 and looking for outlets other than the excess of new shopping malls.”

This outline of minimal progress made shouldn’t be taken to mean that the WWE isn’t in this primarily for the money. It’s a business after all. For all the speculation about cultural change, the organization’s 10-year Saudi contract reportedly stands to make the pro wrestling behemoth somewhere in the ballpark of half a billion dollars.

Nor is there any defending the propaganda video the WWE aired at their Saudi event in April, which claimed that host city Jeddah was a more “vibrant, progressive city” under Mohammed bin Salman.

No one should be defending this regime.

But seeking change within oppressive tyrannies has often meant making questionable concessions, and even shaking the dirty hands of tyrants. Just ask Obama. Or Ronald Reagan. Or Donald Trump.

Though worth billions, the WWE is obviously not a head of state or government entity. It’s a private professional wrestling company that brings lighthearted entertainment to its fans around the world, and is currently making inroads into China (star John Cena has even learned Mandarin).

The company has little say over the regimes in countries it visits. But the globally popular WWE could potentially alleviate at least some suffering through its cultural impact. However modest, it already has.

Some say holding a WWE event in Riyadh in November is an affront to human rights. The stronger argument is that canceling the event would do more to undermine human rights and cultural progress in the repressive theocracy. As of this writing, Starbucks, McDonalds, Apple, AMC movie theaters, and the PGA Tour in Saudi Arabia have no plans of pulling out.

It’s almost as if pro wrestling is being uniquely singled out because it’s an easy target among political elites when compared to other sports and entertainment entities.

This isn’t fair. Saudis could use more WWE and Western influence in their lives, not less. American politicians who willfully send billions to the most oppressive regimes on earth have no business telling the WWE where they can perform.

These senators are only now wrestling with their complicity in enabling a Saudi tyrant, and only after an America-based journalist was killed. Again, how about the over 10,000 civilian deaths in Yemen?

“It is absolutely essential that the Saudi Air Force gets these weapons,” Graham said in June, defending the latest arms sale. Today, he seems to want something closer to regime change in Saudi Arabia.

Why not cultural change instead?

Jack Hunter is the former political editor of Rare.us and co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Senator Rand Paul.

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14 Responses to Why the WWE Should Go To Saudi Arabia

  1. Arkansas Agrarian says:

    I don’t wish the non-culture of the WWE upon our worst enemies. The Wahhabism of SA is dangerous and despicable, but any change the WWE could bring to SA would not be wholesome.

    Positive change would be total oil independence. Then the Saudis would go back to fighting over water holes and wouldn’t have the time nor capability to trouble the world, and we would have no reason to be there.

  2. Frank D says:

    Even better, make the deal contingent on allowing GLOW to compete also.

  3. xcuri says:

    Anytime you have a chance to stop the US from exporting garbage like the WWE to other countries you should take it. Even if it’s Saudi Arabia.

  4. EarlyBird says:

    Seriously, we’re doing WWE “wresting” in Saudi Arabia? No wonder they hate us.

  5. mrscracker says:

    What happened to the Saudi journalist was horrible but what might you expect from a kingdom still set up in the way European kingdoms were centuries ago?
    Goodness, the British were drawing & quartering folks in the not so distant past. Why do we assume Saudi Arabia will make a 500 year leap overnight?
    I read a number of articles in TAC that suggest we mind our own business & stop meddling overseas. I’m not sure why that should differ when it comes to Saudi Arabia.

  6. Ken T says:

    Well, the snarky retort would be that sending the WWE to Saudi Arabia IS a form of punishment. But whatever.

    Seriously, though, this entire post would appear to be an exercise in missing the point (deliberately?). Yes, it is true that all the listed social, cultural, and sporting connections should help bring countries closer together. And in general, I agree completely. But there is one significant difference that sets the WWE/SA connection apart from everything else mentioned. And it has nothing to do with SA. It is the fact, which you glossed over so quickly at the beginning, that it represents yet one more financial conflict of interest between the Trump administration and a foreign government. Which would not be a problem if Trump and his cronies were adhering to the standards of conduct that have been considered normal for every previous administration in history. Assets that have the potential for creating such conflicts should be, and have been by all previous administrations, either divested or placed into blind trusts. But instead, we are left to wonder exactly what quids and quos are being exchanged along with, and in return for, the money.

  7. Patrick D says:

    While I agree with the general premise of the article, it should be pointed out that an oppressive political system (like the USSR) and an oppressive culture (like Wahhabism) are not the same things.

  8. Egypt Steve says:

    No one should go to KSA. One person gets the wrong idea about you, and the next thing, you’re on your knees in a soccer stadium. No thanks.

  9. EliteCommInc. says:

    “Some say holding a WWE event in Riyadh in November is an affront to human rights.”

    Laugh . . .

    As opposed to what –spending money to watch two human beings beat the tar out of each other for entertainment and bowls full of cash.
    —-

    It would be nice to avoid our knee-jerkism for an actual policy. The Saudis prefer a differen t government in Yemen. Their party lost in a civil conflict. Various sources have provided the Houthis weapons. And if it had not been the Houthis it would have been some other faction, Al Qaeda in Yemen or some other group. It is inaccurate given the history to claim that there are only two sides. There have been several factions vying for power. The one thing they all agreed upon was that the established government had to go and they forged common ground to that cause.

    Now according to one article the UAE has made the only real solution if one is going to fight it out and that is boots on the ground. What any of this has to do with the US is bit tenuous, but Saudia Arabia has supported us repeatedly against their own interests, so maybe its our turn on that spin of quid pro quo. look the history of the entire ME reflects that it governance has been at the hands of very tough authoritarians. And the style of authority by our standards is always going to be viewed as barbaric — hence the constant shrill of ME barbarism everywhere against any government in place. It’s like listening to colonialists of old justifying their own behavior – because of barbarism is bad we must go fix it. It was once the christian thing to do — but as liberals have shunned anything that might hold them account to individual morality, it’s now democracy. It’s always nice to add on the rescue of women and children.

    Unfortunately, what the article has correct is the power of economic benefit. Central planning that stifled the Soviet economic industriousness did them in. Because enough Russian spies and tourists really appreciated the freedom of having a coke when they liked, how they liked with whomever they liked — and families on the east got tired of asking permission to travel west to have a coke with their brothers — the walls came down. The diffusion of economic prosperity is really a bummer for autocracies, because they are challenged more and more with people with a stake in the game.

    The Saudis are not responsible based on the evidence for 9/11. They may have heard rumors as apparently many Muslims had, but I suspect that among Muslims — there are always rumors about what is in play for the big bad “americans”. Whether they heard those rumors and passed them along to the US is an unknown, to me. But the evidence that they actively participated remains a matter of speculation.

    I remember when the WWE was something watched on Saturday afternoons, though it wasn’t called the WWE in those days b y the time I hit the 7th grade whatever appeal it had was lost on me. What is fascinating the story of it’s development into a serious form of international entertainment and the wrestlers who made it so. I am not convinced that due compensation has been paid for those those athletes in the WWE and the WWF and its forerunner NWA. Whether it was wizardy or just hard nosed pushmepullyo of it’s early promoters in the days when it was fun and hoopla wrestling or timing for men like Vince McMahon, Jr. the sport/entertainment is now big time money and big time influence brash enough to crossover into the music and film industries. When TBS introduced RAW, impossible not to note for anyone watching anything on TBS wrestling went from global to GLOBAL. And if they can actually introduce the peculiar violent environment to include women wrestlers in any Muslim country — it’s a safe bet that changes unbeknownst to most of us have already taken place.

    I guess even Muslims enjoy a good “catfight.”

    I think the US should be careful with direct interaction in the internal affairs of other states. That alone ought give us pause to actively participate in Yemen. I am not much moved by the clarion calls pulling on my emotions because — war by definition is all the issues presented all the time in all places and almost by definition, sane people consider the matter so ill advised – we are forever damning the process save as “last resort.”

    So if Ray Kroc’s legacy of all things “americana” and family can embraced alongside women beating the tar out of each other by Saudi Arabians, and the Royal family does have the obligation to its citizens: its public, then I can only watch in wonder. Though I break my neck if anything close to “Shades of Grey” hits Saudi Arabia American Multi-Cinema anytime soon.

  10. soundranger says:

    Not buying this at all. Cultural exchange is sending Dizzy Gillespie to Russia. Fake WWE and its built in conflict-of-interest with Mahon at the helm) is 180-degrees from that. Man, talking about slouching toward armegeddon.

  11. Wilfred says:

    Note to whomever writes the scripts for these matches: “Goldberg” must never be allowed to defeat “The Iron Sheik”, or a riot will break out amongst the spectators.

  12. BasileosPetros says:

    Surely nothing bad has ever come from trying to export “Western influence” to a Middle Eastern country!

  13. Mario Diana says:

    What I’m going to say is anecdotal and would be considered “problematic” in some circles, but here goes. My father was foreign born. He was Italian. He loved professional wrestling. When I was young, I dated an Albanian-American girl for a little while. Her foreign born Albanian relatives loved professional wrestling. Again, when I was young, I dated a Greek-American girl for a little while. Her foreign born relatives, too, absolutely loved professional wrestling.

    I don’t know if I can quite put my finger on it, but the WWE is an over-the-top spectacle of cartoonish violence and pageantry that maybe just sort of screams: “Only in America.” I think that’s the way it’s viewed overseas, especially by working class people. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think I get what’s going on in Saudi Arabia. I even remember, maybe 30 years ago, P.J. O’Rourke writing that the Arab world took pro wrestling absolutely seriously.

    Only good can come from bringing WWE to them in the flesh. It’s a goodwill exchange. And fun may actually be the most subversive, regime-changing element to infiltrate that humorless country.

  14. Myron Hudson says:

    It’s odd to see an article like this on a site that generally rejects the decadence of our culture in favor of something more traditional.

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