If wrestlers with the WWE are indeed expressing “discomfort” with plans to perform in Saudi Arabia next month, as an anonymous-sourced Sports Illustrated article says today, last night’s excoriating report by HBO’s John Oliver could only have pumped them up even more.
In a nearly 20-minute segment on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight (watch it above), Oliver detailed the cozy and lucrative relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, specifically Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he’s often called).
Determined to position the kingdom in a new and more progressive worldwide light, MBS, as Oliver put it, “struck a 10-year deal with one of the most popular and most American franchises there is — World Wresting Entertainment, or WWE.” The first WWE event was staged in April, but the big, appropriately titled “Crown Jewel” pay-per-view event is set for November 2 in Riyadh.
The April event, as Oliver described it, provided the kingdom with global “wall-to-wall propaganda about the new Saudi Arabia, including video showing women happily driving, men dancing and tourist destination beauty shots as well as constant excited compliments throughout the broadcast.”
As Oliver pointed out, a “much grimmer story” was going on in Saudi Arabia even then — for example, women who had campaigned for driving rights had been arrested even as their accomplishment was being heralded. The WWE itself had bent to the will of the Saudis on the issue of its female wrestlers, leaving them out of the ring under the deal, per local custom.
And now, with the all but certain murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, the WWE’s “Crown Jewel” event is anything but. After showing a clip of wrestler-actor John Cena expressing “a genuine thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” (that moment in the Last Week Tonight segment comes in at about the 7:50 mark above), Oliver said, “It seems the WWE is as overtly pro-Saudi Arabia as it is latently homoerotic, which is to say, intensely.”
When contacted by Deadline, a WWE rep said the company is “monitoring the situation” in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund took a minority stake in Deadline and Variety owner PMC earlier this year for a reported $200 million.
The Sports Illustrated post said that “multiple members of the WWE talent roster have expressed discomfort with the idea of performing in Saudi Arabia.” John Cena, a wrestling A-lister who has crossed over into mainstream movies, has not made any kind of public statement as yet. In the Last Week Tonight segment, he is shown offering “a genuine thank-you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” from the middle of the ring at the April event.
WWE stock dipped a fraction today, closing at $84.97. While it has had a banner 2018, it has slipped more than 10% in October to date, though any link to the Khashoggi situation has not been clearly established.
Watch Oliver’s report on “the situation” above.