Last week, the WWE was holding shows in the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh. John Cena, Randy Orton and some 30 others have been performing across the three-day tour. This is the first time the franchise has held matches in the country since its Middle East debut in Egypt in 2012. Subsequent events were held in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Performing in Saudi is not uncontroversial. The country is well known as home to some of Islam’s holiest sites and the conservative religious rule has often meant strict laws regarding gender segregation or as some have called it, gender discrimination and misogyny. The Ticketmaster page selling tickets for the Saudi events said they were “for males only.”
WWE Hall of Famer and ex-commentator, the revered Jim Ross was asked whether the company’s appearance in Saudi conflicted with its policies on diversity. His response was that the questioner was “over-thinking” the matter. He continued “Of course it’s all about the money. When was it not all about the money? Diversification has zero to do with a country’s laws or customs”. Whilst Ross is right about the money, he may perhaps be wrong about the diversity point. Only male wrestlers could benefit from the pay-out for the tour for example. So were WWE right to go or not?
The 2012 London Olympics helped to highlight the issue of Saudi women’s participation in sport. According to Saudi law, women were forbidden from participating in the Olympic games until recently. Bowing to pressure from the International Olympic Committee, the Saudi government agreed that female athletes would participate in the 2012 Summer games. Following a trial run at the 2010 Youth Olympics (where equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas took bronze), two women competed in London. Wojdan Shaherkani in Judo and Sarah Attar in the 800 Metres. The following year, the first dedicated sports centre for girls was opened in Khobar together with an announcement that girls are now officially permitted to practice sports in private schools. This points perhaps to an easing of the restrictions on women and is something that in our view ought to be celebrated.
The WWE is in a difficult position. It has developed a mature and active wellbeing programme to tackle drugs problems both for the good of its athletes and its reputation. It has an extensive charitable giving programme and the ‘do not try this’ adverts ensure it is being seen as a responsible brand. So when it comes to Women’s rights, surely the WWE wants to be on equally responsible footing?
Certainly, past (and some might argue present) representation of women in the WWE has not always been respectful. None the less, the ‘Diva’s are getting more wrestling time on TV and whilst they may never get completely equal representation in this genre of sports entertainment, anyone seeking to argue that Lita or Paige cant wrestle would probably find themselves floored in short order.
We would argue that the WWE could and should have tackled the issue a little more head-on than it has and not simply ignored it. A well placed article on its Arabic website, an interview with a diva at the very least would have been appropriate. Even some statement of policy would have been useful. Whilst money is the driving force here and the market is wide open in Saudi, WWE does have a moral obligation to its female athletes if not to its fans.
There is however something to be said for the WWE going to Saudi anyway. As we well know, once a wrestling brand has caught you, it is difficult to get away from it. Surely Saudi men going to the live shows are unlikely to leave it there. It won’t be long before the access Raw, Smackdown and yes, Total Divas and see some positive female role-models. So too, might the WWE Arabic website lead its readership beyond its borders to other sites. And of course, there are the pioneering Saudi women and enlightened Saudi men whom won’t stop their fight for better national policies and provision. Perhaps it won’t be long before the first Saudi female wrestler participates in the Olympics or even joins the WWE. For the company’s next visit we advise a little more pride in its diversity and honesty about the problems but there are some – perhaps untold – benefits for WWE going to Saudi.