WWE’s Return to Saudi Arabia Reignites Questions About Controversial Partnership

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Can capitalism have a conscience?

That question repeated itself the past few weeks as the NBA attempted to repair its lucrative relationship with China—and is relevant again as WWE returns to Saudi Arabia on Thursday another big pay day. 

The NBA opened itself up to criticism earlier this month when it failed to offer its full support to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey after he tweeted his support for protestors in Hong Kong, instead taking a stance it hoped would mitigate damage to its previously strong relationship with the world’s largest country. 

Cowing to China was a move harshly criticized in the United States, given the Chinese government’s numerous monstrosities. It is not uncommon for the government to undermine free speech, or for civil rights activists to be imprisoned or disappear altogether. China forcefully harvesting organs from living prisoners detained in Chinese prison camps is sickening.

Saudi Arabia—which entered into a 10-year pact with WWE worth hundreds of millions of dollars in March 2018—has a similarly oppressive government. No different than the NBA’s relationship with China, WWE’s allegiance to Saudi Arabia is entirely about money.

WWE should not be partnered with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, especially after the vicious assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Aligning with Saudi Arabia—home of human rights crimes, such as jailing activists and a mass execution this past April—makes it difficult to support the product.

There is also the question of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Up until this Thursday, WWE’s female talent had been prohibited from performing at shows there, though that will change at Thursday’s Crown Jewel show with a match between Natalya Neidhart and Lacey Evans. It is certainly an important addition to the card, but it does not change the fact that women have severely limited rights in Saudi Arabia.

Regardless of the locale, though, people will want to watch Brock Lesnar-Cain Velasquez and Braun Strowman-Tyson Fury. Who can blame people for being interested? Those are WrestleMania-caliber matches that, truthfully, belong at a WrestleMania following months of buildup. Instead, the Saudi money has dictated otherwise.

I would watch Crown Jewel on October 31 whether I was writing about it or not, so perhaps I’m part of the problem. I enjoy the product, and regardless of whether the trips to Saudi Arabia are glorified house shows, they offer some matchups that are too exciting to miss. But why force viewers into a situation where watching is uncomfortable?

After furious calls to cancel last year’s Crown Jewel event in the immediate aftermath of the Khashoggi killing, opposition to the WWE’s deal with Saudi Arabia has subsided to a degree, lending credence to the belief that the passage of time makes the controversial relationship less severe. (The NBA’s China controversy, meanwhile, remains fairly fresh.) But if and when the Saudi government draws attention to its abuses again, WWE will inevitably find itself in a precarious position of having to defend a business deal while still promoting its numerous charitable endeavors.

There is only one solution to the WWE problem with Saudi Arabia, and it is no different than the answer to the NBA’s mess with China.

Go elsewhere. Eat costs if needed. Ultimately, there is no price tag on goodwill. Show your conscience even when it affects the bottom line, which is the area that has exposed many within the NBA.

Money dictates decisions, but the House of Saud aren’t the only people in the world who have it. WWE needs to find new money, far away from Saudi Arabia.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.