The company last week confirmed that it will move ahead with the event despite other media and entertainment companies and individuals pulling back or re-evaluating ties to the Arab nation in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
Cena’s absence from the event was explained via a scripted exchange during WWE’s Monday Night Raw telecast, which said that Bobby Lashley had “qualified” for the tournament portion of the show instead of Cena. A WWE rep had no comment beyond the explanation offered on Raw.
The company said last week that it was maintaining “an open line of communication” with its stars and would address their individual concerns about Saudi Arabia as they arise. Cena, whose Twitter feed is dominated by promotions for his recently published children’s book as well as motivational aphorisms, has not acknowledged the parting of the ways. He had been among the personalities mocked by HBO’s John Oliver during a widely viewed Last Week Tonight segment about Saudi Arabia, which noted the WWE’s 10-year deal with the country.
The deal kicked off in April with a highly publicized event at a stadium filled with 60,000 fans. Cena performed there, fighting Triple H and telling the crowd it was “an honor and a privilege” to be there. “I want to send a genuine thank you to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Cena’s sentiment at the time expressed a widely held sense of openness and collaboration with the Saudis from entertainment players as Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman liberalized some parts of the ancient society. Movie theaters opened for the first time in decades and Saudi women were allowed to drive. That changing image got a harsh revision at the beginning of October as the news emerged that Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who had written for the Washington Post, had been brutally murdered during a visit to the Saudi embassy in Turkey. In light of that news and the diplomatic crisis that ensued, participants withdrew from a major investor conference and Endeavor walked away from a $400 million investment from the Saudis.
Had the WWE moved, canceled or postponed the Crown Jewel event, analysts predicted a hit to its fourth-quarter cash flow of at least a couple of million dollars. While the company said in a statement that it had been a “very difficult decision,” it pointed to a 20-year relationship with fans in the region. “Similar to other U.S.-based companies who plan to continue operations in Saudi Arabia, the company has decided to uphold its contractual obligations to the General Sports Authority and stage the event,” the WWE said.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund took a minority stake in Deadline and Variety owner PMC earlier this year for a reported $200 million.