The WWE’s Conundrum

I don’t usually get to talk about wrestling in the context of politics, but the WWE is in a bit of a bind. The biggest wrestling organization on the planet is scheduled to have a major show in Saudi Arabia on November 2. This is the second network spectacular to be held in Saudi Arabia this year, as the WWE held a show there in April. The WWE evidently has a ten-year deal with Saudi Arabia worth on the order of $40 million per year.

Because of the money being lavished upon the WWE, and the influence of the prince. these are fairly loaded cards. Brock Lesnar, who has become a bit of a special attraction, is scheduled, and Shawn Michaels will be wrestling his first match in over eight years. There have also been rumors that the prince has put pressure to ensure certain wrestlers appear at both shows.

Some fans had already expressed displeasure with the idea of WWE getting into bed with the Saudi government. No women wrestled in April and none are scheduled for next month, nor will the WWE be bringing along its female commentator, Renee Young. And the show next month occurs only a few days after the WWE’s first ever all-female pay-per view, errr, network special.

If there was already some unease with the idea of WWE going to Saudi Arabia, things have only gotten worse in the wake of the disappearance and possible assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Many media outlets and even some Congressmen are pressuring the WWE to cancel or postpone. Dave Meltzer, a noted wrestling journalist, has reported that many wrestlers, if not most, have indicated they don’t want to go.

So what is WWE to do? This really does seem to be a no-win situation. Though WWE is making money hand over first, including having signed a pair of billion dollar television deals, and with it stocks seemingly in a state of perpetual ascent, pulling out of this show will nonetheless mean effectively nullifying a multi-million dollar deal, which in turn may put downward pressure on stocks. On the other hand, carrying on with the show could be a p.r. nightmare.

Personally, I think WWE should be at least slightly concerned about the safety of its wrestlers and employees. Who knows what other developments are around the corner, and it’s not unthinkable that relations between our nation and the Sauds could get a little tense. Now might not be the right time to go.

Why this interests me is WWE has also traveled to China each of the past three years. While you might hear the occasional murmuring about these shows, there’s nowhere near the same level of protest. Yet China’s record of political repression, especially of religious practitioners and hostile media, is arguably just as bad as Saudi Arabia’s. We’ve managed to somehow take China’s opening of its markets as a sign that it is no longer an authoritarian state, but the political climate in China is still horrendous. Yet we yawn as businesses continue to deal with the Chinese without hearing much of a peep about it.

Realists will argue that our friends are not always squeaky clean, and we have to deal with evil regimes, especially when there are worse, even more repressive nation states. Furthermore, businesses dealing with these regimes are in a sense helping to open up these nations, and may actually be part of a wider liberalization. That’s certainly a valid argument. Others will argue that the WWE is propping up a wicked regime, and is essentially providing fodder for its propaganda purposes, while also countenancing  some its wrestlers being given second class status.

That argument certainly has merit as well. I just wish we could establish how much repression we’re willing to tolerate before we pretend to care.