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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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?