The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has severely damaged Saudi Arabia’s reputation this week, but WWE’s next big money Saudi show is still on track for early November. Khashoggi, a Saudi-born journalist for the Guardian and the Washington Post who fled to America after criticizing his home country, hasn’t been seen since Oct. 2. His last known whereabouts were the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, and the Turkish government claims to have audio and video evidence that Khashoggi was tortured and executed there by Saudi operatives. It’s an explosive charge that has driven a number of Westerners to rethink their business relationships with the Kingdom, but as of now WWE’s Crown Jewel show is still scheduled to run at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on Nov. 2. Today the company released a tepid one-sentence statement about the show. The statement reads, in full: “We are currently monitoring the situation.”
It shouldn’t have taken the disappearance and possible murder of one man for WWE to begin “monitoring” its relationship with Saudi Arabia. By entering into business with the Kingdom WWE is willfully ignoring the country’s despicable human rights record. This is a country that executes gay people and various non-violent offenders, and a country that, since 2015, has injured or killed over 2000 children in Yemen through air strikes on civilian targets. Khashoggi’s disappearance might have brought greater attention to Saudi Arabia’s misdeeds, but the government is guilty of far more than the possible murder of one journalist.
The worst thing isn’t just that WWE does business with Saudi Arabia. It’s that WWE willingly turns itself into a full-fledged propaganda machine for a country with such a brutal track record. WWE’s Greatest Royal Rumble at Jeddah earlier this year was as much of an ad for the country as it was a wrestling show, with WWE announcers regularly praising the country’s new “progressive” outlook. WWE has stacked both of this year’s Saudi Arabian shows with WrestleMania-worthy cards, including the surprising return of Shawn Michaels at Crown Jewel after an eight-year retirement. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince is paying WWE a massive amount of money to run these shows, and in return WWE is willingly and shamefully whitewashing the country’s human rights record while treating the country to the company’s biggest shows of the year. WWE will promote the country however the Crown Prince wishes, even if it directly contradicts how the Saudi Arabian government actually acts.
The only reason WWE felt the need to respond to the controversy over Khashoggi’s disappearance is because it’s become impossible for the company to ignore it. It’s been the lead news story for much of this week (whenever the media wasn’t too busy fixating on Kanye West, that is), with Jared Kushner and Donald Trump’s relationship with the Crown Prince coming under increased scrutiny. Even prominent Republicans are forcefully speaking out against Saudi Arabia’s possible connection to Khashoggi’s disappearance. America has staunchly supported Saudi Arabia for decades, despite its consistently terrible human rights record, but it’s been a long time since that relationship has taken as much public fire as it has this week, if ever.
WWE should be especially susceptible to scrutiny over its relationship with Saudi Arabia, considering the company’s closeness with the Trump Administration. Linda McMahon, of course, is a member of Trump’s Cabinet, making her just another high-level Trump official with strong ties to Saudi Arabia. The mainstream media hasn’t generally covered WWE’s relationship with the country, though, or how it connects to the Trump Administration; there’s been some mainstream attention (at Fox News, of all places) but outlets like CNN are too busy reporting kayfabe storylines as if they’re actual news to look at WWE’s Saudi connections.
WWE’s deal with Saudi Arabia might be making the company an obscene amount of money for a relatively little amount of work, but it’s one WWE never should’ve agreed to. That money wouldn’t be worth the public relations hit that this relationship should—and might still—result in, especially since WWE will soon be making unprecedented amounts of money for its TV deals (despite decreasing ratings). WWE shouldn’t have started “monitoring the situation” after Khashoggi’s disappearance, or even in light of the Yemeni bombings or rampant executions. The situation never should have existed to begin with, as any company that tries to present itself as forward-thinking and progressive as WWE does should have known to avoid Saudi Arabian money. At the end of the day wrestling has always been about making money, above and beyond anything else, and the carnie hearts of those in charge of WWE couldn’t pass up the biggest money mark of all time, no matter how bloodstained his money might be.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.