WWE’s Saudi Arabia Problem

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The spotlight was back on WWE’s controversial deal with Saudi Arabia last week when the White House released a report holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the gruesome 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  This presents WWE with a Saudi Arabia problem.

New Report Adds to WWE’s Saudi Arabia Problem

This creates a problem for WWE, who signed a ten-year deal with the Middle Eastern kingdom in 2018. The company received a great deal of criticism for hosting their Crown Jewel pay-per-view one month after Khashoggi’s murder. WWE defended the move as, “a business decision,” and they likely believed that criticism would fade over time.

It’s clear that the controversy isn’t going away, however. The White House report has left the Saudi government with a black eye, and made it harder for US companies — especially high-profile companies like WWE — to do business there without attracting bad PR in the process.

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It’s easy to see why WWE likes the deal from a purely financial point of view, For two shows a year, they reportedly get $50 million. But unlike other major PPVs like WrestleMania, which WWE spends months building towards, the Saudi shows tend to be thrown together at the last minute with minimal build. Older wrestlers like The Undertaker and Goldberg are showcased in short, terrible matches, while the majority of the remaining talent participate in a battle royal or a tournament with no storyline payoff. In short, WWE gets paid a lot of money for little work. Not bad.

But, the bloom appeared to be coming off the rose between the two sides even before last week’s White House report. Following the Crown Jewel PPV in 2019, the plane chartered to bring the majority of WWE talent and crew back to the US was held on the airport tarmac for 24 hours, causing them to miss that week’s episode of Smackdown Live!.

Although WWE has maintained the plane was held up for mechanical reasons, reports surfaced stating that the delay was the result of a dispute over money between WWE and the Saudis, leading to WWE’s Vince McMahon ordering the live feed cut for the Saudi audience watching the event on TV. The delay on the tarmac was said to be the Saudis’ response.

Despite the alleged dispute, WWE returned to Saudi Arabia for the Super Showdown PPV in February 2020 and is undoubtedly planning to do so again once COVID restrictions have been lifted.

But it may not be up to them. WWE recently signed a deal to stream the WWE Network exclusively on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock. If NBC isn’t comfortable with the Saudi shows streaming on their platform in light of the Khashoggi report, that could potentially kill the deal.

WWE has proven susceptible to outside pressure before. When Wrestlemania sponsor Snickers expressed concern about allegations made against the late Fabulous Moolah in 2018, her name was pulled from the women’s battle royal that was to take place in her honor. In 2005, Smackdown’s then-network, UPN, refused to air the Muhammad Hassan character, causing WWE to drop him shortly thereafter.

Time will tell what, if any, this latest development will have on the WWE – Saudi relationship. WWE will undoubtedly want to go ahead with business as usual; after all, the deal is worth a lot of money. But with the Saudi government being held responsible for murder, WWE’s Saudi Arabia problem may not be worth the headache.

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