This Friday WWE runs the first show in a ten-year, multi-million dollar deal with Saudi Arabia. The Greatest Royal Rumble, as it’s being called, is essentially a house show, but one with a WrestleMania-worthy lineup that’s being broadcast live on the WWE Network. It’s an all-hands-on-deck affair, with basically every wrestler on the roster appearing on the show between a 50-man Royal Rumble main event and a nine-match undercard. Almost every title will be defended, and even the Undertaker, who only worked a three-minute unofficial match at WrestleMania this year, will have his own spotlight match in Saudi Arabia. Many think this show is where Roman Reigns will finally beat Brock Lesnar for the Universal title, after the company apparently got cold feet running that finish in front of a strongly anti-Reigns WrestleMania crowd. There’s a good chance this could be WWE’s biggest show of the year.
One highly visible aspect of the company will be missing, though, and its absence proves that cold, hard cash means more to WWE than any of its supposed principles or corporate initiatives. No women wrestlers will be allowed to compete at The Greatest Royal Rumble. It’s not surprising in a country where women are still denied many of their basic rights, but it runs counter to the “women’s evolution” marketing that has been a major part of WWE’s shows and identity for the last three years. Women’s wrestling is better and more prominent in WWE than ever before, but it’s absolutely not welcome at a show that the company has essentially pitched as the sequel to WrestleMania.
That means no Charlotte Flair or Asuka, who had the best match at WrestleMania less than three weeks ago. No Ronda Rousey, who’s currently WWE’s biggest mainstream name in America, and who the company reportedly intends to push as its biggest star, man or woman. No Alexa Bliss, one of the best pure heels in the business today. None of the women who are changing how WWE fans view women’s wrestling will be performing at The Greatest Royal Rumble.
Many believe that this undercuts the company’s commitment to its women, and that it makes their regular self-congratulations over the “women’s evolution” feel even more hollow than usual. It’s hard not to sympathize with that argument—if WWE has no problem jettisoning the women’s matches that have become a regular part of every one of their shows for the last few years, just because a country with a terrible human rights record dumps an obscene amount of money into their laps, it reveals so much of their women’s wrestling messaging as the empty promotional speak that it is. It makes the vaunted women’s evolution look like what it essentially boils down to: not a noble attempt to carve out a welcoming space within wrestling for serious women’s wrestling, but a way to expand WWE’s customer base and hopefully boost the company’s bottom line.
There’s nothing wrong with running a women’s division purely as a business decision. This is wrestling—everything is business. That’s not how WWE pushes it, though, either on TV or in their corporate publicity. The “women’s evolution” isn’t about capitalizing on the new audience that could potentially get into wrestling through the women-centric reality shows WWE airs on E!, if you believe the company’s spin—it’s about being at the vanguard of equality for women in sports, a message the company has repeated as often as possible over the last three years. Never mind that Ronda Rousey was already a massive star before WWE rebranded its former Divas division, or that the women stars of tennis have been bigger draws than the men for at least a couple of decades. From the start WWE has depicted the “women’s evolution” not as a movement driven by the talent of the performers, but by the foresight of management—as proof of the company’s progressive vision and corporate audacity. Those claims look even weaker now that we know the company will cast that aside for the right price.
Another fact that raises even more questions about this event: Saudi Arabia is using the show as a kind of public relations event to change international perceptions about its treatment of women. The country is restricting tickets for the most visible seats to families that have at least one woman in them, with the idea apparently being that viewers in other countries will see women enjoying themselves in a mixed crowd in public and rethink their opinion of Saudi Arabia. It’s true that Saudi Arabia is finally lifting some of the restrictions it’s long imposed on women—in the last few years they’ve received the rights to vote, run for office, and drive—but it still has a long way to go. A pro wrestling show seems like a weird event to tout the new freedoms afforded to women, but apparently that’s the rationale behind the ticket restrictions. The line between marketing and propaganda is very thin in this situation, and for those who feel this event is the latter it’s certainly a bad look for WWE to be associated with it.
There are arguments to be made for WWE’s involvement with Saudi Arabia. The country is gradually loosening some of the limitations it sets on women, and perhaps a company like WWE could nudge it further in that direction over the course of its ten-year deal. If WWE can prevail upon Saudi Arabia to let Rousey, Flair or Asuka perform on one of the shows in the future, that could be a big step towards allowing women to compete in more legitimate sports. Paul “Triple H” Levesque, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, says as much in an interview with The Independent:
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.
That might come to pass. If it does it would show that WWE is as dedicated to leveling the playing field for women as they claim to be. Until then, though, it’s simply a bad look to run such a major show without women, and all the criticism the company is seeing from this decision is justified.