WWE will be hosting arguably its biggest event in the Middle East this Friday when Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, hosts The Greatest Royal Rumble event. This pay-per-view event, the first outside of the America's in decades, has come into considerable attention this past week by mainstream media outlets who are questioning the WWE's involvement with a monarch-state that doesn't boast the track record when it comes to social and cultural issues such as women's rights. We delve into the political side of Saudi Arabia and how it has managed to attract a 10 year deal with the number one wrestling promotion on the planet. All aboard.
WWE's Greatest Royal Rumble: 27/04/2018
For wrestling fans across the world, this Royal Rumble event is an opportunity to watch some major talent appear on pay-per-view, with appearances from the likes of The Undertaker proving a rarity in modern WWE. Every male Championship title is on the line, and a 50-man Royal Rumble, the largest by quantities sake in history, will main event the show.
For the wrestlers, and many of the 60,000 fans in attendance, this will be the first time they've ever been able to attend a WWE show. Here's what is on offer this week.
Greatest Royal Rumble: Lineup
WWE Universal Championship: Brock Lesner (c) vs. Roman Reigns in a Steel Cage match
WWE Championship: AJ Styles (c) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
WWE Intercontinental Championship: Seth Rollins (c) vs. Samoa Joe vs. Finn Balor vs. The Miz in a Ladder match
WWE United States Championship: Jeff Hardy (c) vs. Jinder Mahal
WWE RAW Tag Team Championships: Sheamus & Cesaro vs. Bray Wyatt & Matt Hardy
WWE SmackDown Live Tag Team Championships: The Bludgeon Brothers (c) vs. The Usos
WWE Cruiserweight Championship: Cedric Alexander (c) vs. Kalisto
Greatest Royal Rumble Match: 50-man over the top Battle Royal
Casket match: The Undertaker vs. Rusev
Singles match: John Cena vs. Triple H
WWE and Saudi Arabia: A Ten Year Partnership
Vision 2030 is Saudi Arabia’s social and economic reform program set out by the absolute Monarchy, which sets out to diversify Saudi Arabia's economy in the coming years, and WWE have jumped on board Saudi Arabia's vision with a ten-year agreement signed between the entertainment company and the General Sports Authority (GSA).
WWE last visited Saudi Arabia in November 2016, and return in a larger capacity to host an international pay-per-view dubbed The Greatest Royal Rumble, the first in a series of high profile events in the country. Future events in the country will be 'Tag Team' and 'RAW Title' events.
Vince McMahon, WWE Chairman & CEO, had this to say regarding the announcement: “The Greatest Royal Rumble will be a spectacle of historic proportions...Our partnership with the Saudi General Sports Authority reflects a long-term commitment to present WWE’s world-class entertainment to a global audience on a grander scale than ever before.”
The wrestling promotion is also opening a Performance Center in Saudi Arabia, with one male wrestler set to compete in the 50-man Greatest Royal Rumble match this Friday.
Saudi Arabia: A country in reform?
Mohammed bin Salman is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and is overseeing a process of a modernisation in the country. The Arabian Peninsula state is a Monarchy led by Islamic law, and has been sustained for generations by the one word commonly associated with that region of the world - oil.
Saudi Arabia has always subsidised oil and gas prices in the country, but have been going through austerity measures in recent years. The Finance Ministry in the country has outlined an economic plan to bolster a stagnating economy by 2025, and plans to lift the subsidy enjoyed by the public, which in Lehman terms means that the country will no longer get to enjoy cut-price oil and gas. This move is unpopular amongst the majority of the Saudi public, and to offset much criticism aimed at the State, wider public reform is slowly being implemented across the country.
As natural gas and oil reserves continue to dwindle, the country is attempting to develop into areas such as Technology and Entertainment, to sustain the country for generations to come, so it should be no surprise that the country would push hard to enter an agreement with WWE, who in their own rights are a global juggernaut in sports and entertainment. From a ground level this is having an impact on the general public, who are having to learn new trades and adopt to a way of life that on the surface might not to too dissimilar from Western countries. A reliance on its workforce also means that rights for women are polarised religious groups and beginning to surface.
Saudis currently spend billions of dollars annually to see movies, holiday, and visit entertainment venues in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai, but now the Monarchy is looking to cultivate domestic growth with attractions like WWE. For us, this is very similar to the Qatar state, who pushed and successfully managed to acquire global sporting events such as The World Cup, set to be hosted in the winter of 2022.
Crown Prince Salman's efforts domestically could though, be met by backlash with international affairs in Yemen, Lebanon, and Qatar in particular (essentially trade blocking the country due to alleged corruption charges), potentially undermining the success of moves such as bringing WWE to the country, or seemingly advancing women's right in certain areas.
From this standpoint, the Saudi monarch will be more desperate than the WWE will for this mammoth wrestling event to be a success.
Saudi Vision 2030 - Entertainment:
- In 2014 the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium was unveiled, the same venue that is set to host the Greatest Royal Rumble event. It hosts football matches for the Saudi national side, and the King Cup, which is the Saudi's FC Cup equivalent.
- In Riyadh, the first public live music concert in over 25 years was held in May 2017, featuring American country star Toby Keith and Saudi singer Rabeh Sager.
- In March 2018, the WWE's Greatest Royal Rumble event the crowning of a 10-year strategic multi-platform partnership between WWE and the General Sports Authority
Saudi Vision 2030 - Women's Rights & Sport:
- In 2013, the Consultative Assembly (which is an elected advisory body to the absolute Monarchy in Saudi Arabia), allowed women to become members, and in 2015 were allowed to run for office in local elections.
- In August 2016, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud became the Vice-President of Women’s Affairs at the General Sports Authority.
- In July 2017, the Saudi government announced physical education (PE) classes would be made available to girls in public state schools.
- In August 2017 it was announced that both men and women could attend sporting events together in national stadiums, with women allowed to attend if they are accompanied by a male.
- In September 2017, women were granted the right to drive, a royal decree which comes into effect in June 2018.
- In February 2018, Saudi Arabia announced that women could join the military.
For all of the advancements in women's rights in the country, women still aren't allowed to go swimming or participate in sporting events, hence why the WWE women have been left off the card altogether at the Greatest Royal Rumble. Women still aren't joint decision-makers at home, allowed to wear clothes that 'show off their beauty', or try clothes on when going shopping, and there is a lot of public segregation with women taught to limit interactions with men (at universities at some entertainment venues, there are separate entrances and exits for men and women).
Criticism of the Great Royal Rumble Event
Paul Levesque (aka Triple H), the company’s Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative recently spoke to the Independent, defending the decision to operate in Saudi Arabia, after media outlets across the world began to take an interest.
“I understand that people are questioning it, but you have to understand that every culture is different and just because you don’t agree with a certain aspect of it, it doesn’t mean it’s not a relevant culture.
You can’t dictate to a country or a religion about how they handle things but, having said that, WWE is at the forefront of a women’s evolution in the world and what you can’t do is affect change anywhere by staying away from it.
While, right now, women are not competing in the event, we have had discussions about that and we believe and hope that, in the next few years they will be. That is a significant cultural shift in Saudi Arabia.
The country is in the middle of a shift in how it is dealing with that – the position is changing, and rights are changing, as are the way women are handled and treated in society. We think that’s a great thing and we’re excited to be at the forefront of that change.”
The viewpoint of people outside of the media...
If we take away a carefully constructed statement from the WWE, the viewpoint is divided about the event. In one corner you've got a lot of fans and onlookers who believe that WWE is selling out their brand to the Saudi monarch for nothing more than financial gain.
In the other corner you have the 'bigger picture' argument which tackles Saudi Arabia's sudden shift in social and cultural policy that has ultimately opened doors in entertainment and sport that were once closed to a strongly-conservative public. The belief here is that WWE's involvement with Saudi Arabia is a relationship building exercise that will one day see social reform that could see women compete in sport among other this.
An area of the Greatest Royal Rumble that has been heavily criticised is the seating arrangement in the King Abdullah International Stadium. With 60,000 seats in the arena only 10,000 were released to single adult males. Women are only allowed to attend if they have a male present with them. The ringside area and the main floor will be occupied by families, which is no doubt a PR exercise to paint a particular picture of the crowd. The last thing a country pushing reform wants the wider world to see is a bunch of hyper men at ringside painting a male-dominated view of the country.
WWE's women competitors will also not be allowed to compete at the event, which goes against the massive push the women competitors in the company have been receiving over the course of the last two years, leading to criticism that WWE are happy to forego their moral and professional compass for short-term financial gain.
Our Thoughts of the Greatest Royal Rumble
WWE is obviously a business model that is not shy in dealing with all walks of life, which we believe this article has highlighted in abundance. Vince McMahon's entertainment juggernaut will have been offered a lucrative sum to sign on the dotted line for a decade to go back for numerous wrestling events in support of Saudi Arabia's 2030 vision, but we'd like to touch on something that we've not been reading a lot on, which is the booking of the event.
With mainstream media taking a strange-hold of the narrative this past week, either questioning WWE's moral compass to venture into a business venture that has a lot of observers uncomfortable, or highlighting social and cultural issues and differences (especially with supposed women and human rights violations), it has been hard to see light at the end of the tunnel and see clearly, as the wider media will do rile an audience into a fever pitch, just for the sake of profit.
The glaring problem from our viewpoint as regular viewers of WWE programming is a burnout factor that lingers heavily heading into the show. We feel that this Royal Rumble event is out-of-place on the grand scheme, shoehorned into a certain time and date that feels unnatural, and that in truth, a majority of the fan-base do not want. This event perhaps would have been given a greater chance of success if it was a few months down the line when a wider audience would tune in to see The Undertaker wrestle again, but it all feels too soon following a WrestleMania season that was indulging enough.
We also feel that branding itself as another Rumble event doesn't help the marketing of the event, irregardless of the 'Greatest' tag. The event should have been tailored more accordingly to a localised Saudi audience in regards to its presentation and namesake, that way it could have felt fresh and exciting, which is exactly what happened with the well-received UK Championship Tournament event that was held in Blackpool. Unfortunately, there are no marks for creativity or originality here, instead money has ultimately talked and the WWE competitors (the men at least) will be in for a bumper pay-day.
The card itself feels rushed, with no build between Rusev and The Unertaker's casket match, which also applies to John Cena's encounter with Triple H. The only promotion for the event has been hard-selling it during the past two RAW and SmackDown shows, which makes the Greatest Royal Rumble feel like an old-school Madison Square garden live event, only with cameras on it.
Saudi Arabia has made great strides to have Vince McMahon venture into new territory on such a large scale, and must have proven relentless in their negotiations, as the ruling Monarchy have done what British and European wrestling fans have wanted - a pay-per-view on the other side of the Atlantic ocean!
Our gut instinct suggests that besides the men's titles being on the line, the purpose and potential 'history' of the 'greatest' Royal Rumble event itself might lack much impact and long-term strategy, instead enough money has been waved above upper-management that one of the marquee matches and pay-per-view events on the WWE calendar has been sold out to the highest bidder and its audience will comply once more that us viewers will utilise a short memory span. The event certainly feels like a one-and-done as the longevity of the Rumble's outcome looks minimal, and from a company point of view, especially being held on a Friday, one that the WWE would like to get out of the way so they can get back into the groove of their regular TV and pay-per-view format.
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