Multiple members of the WWE talent roster told SI.com they were uncomfortable with the Saudi shows.
WWE needs transparency in its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If an exorbitant amount of money makes the deal worthwhile, then WWE should state the obvious and say so. But keeping the deal with the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia is problematic for a number of reasons.
With female talent not allowed to perform in the country, the Saudi deal hurts WWE’s efforts to champion their women’s revolution. That was evident from the moment the partnership was announced. The new issue is the recent human rights violation that occurred in Turkey—where the Saudi government allegedly ordered and carried out the murder of a prominent Saudi journalist, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who had been critical of the regime.
The right decision for WWE should be simple: Indefinitely suspend all shows in Saudi Arabia.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, multiple members of the WWE talent roster have expressed discomfort with the idea of performing in Saudi Arabia, especially given the nation’s poor record with human rights.
“As always, we maintain an open line of communication with our performers as we continue to monitor the situation,” WWE said in a statement to the New York Post after this piece was published.
In WWE’s defense, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sold them on a vision of a progressive nation. He appeared earnest in his pursuit of Western entertainment, and sold potential business partners on a vision of a progressive Saudi Arabia, while taking modest steps—such as allowing women the right to drive—to give them reason to believe he was sincere.
WWE is far from alone in its business endeavors with Saudi Arabia. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was another significant partner with a space tourism venture, but he halted his $1 billion investment project with Saudi Arabia following the news of Khashoggi’s disappearance. Numerous top business executives, including Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase and Bill Ford of Ford Motor, have also announced they would no longer be attending the Future Investment Initiative conference later this month in Saudi Arabia.
So while it is reasonable to see why WWE involved itself with Saudi Arabia, taking the appropriate action in the wake of this week’s news and backing out of the deal would hardly be unprecedented.
This situation far exceeds the realm of pro wrestling. President Donald Trump spoke Sunday on 60 Minutes, stating there would be “severe punishment” if the Saudi government is found responsible for the murder of Khashoggi. Dave Meltzer said on Wrestling Observer Radio that it would take intervention from the State Department or Trump himself to prevent the show from happening.
If the show takes place as planned, “Crown Jewel” on Nov. 2 will forever be stained. Unfortunately, that means that special moments—particularly the AJ Styles vs. Daniel Bryan dream match and the long-awaited return of Shawn Michaels—will always be associated with the controversial alliance with the Saudi Arabian government.
But there is one potential positive to emerge out of this sordid affair: WWE has been presented a unique opportunity to make a statement about human rights and equality.
By exiting its deal with the Saudi government, WWE can boldly state that it followed its moral compass, sacrificing significant money in the decision. Or it can admit that the money generated by the show is too much to pass up. But if it is purely a matter of money, the upcoming television deal with FOX trumps the Saudi deal, in the combination of both cash and legitimacy.
WWE—particularly Vince McMahon—owes the fan base an explanation regarding the company’s future in Saudi Arabia.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.