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Imp’s WWE Adventure
WWE & Saudi Arabia: A Time of Change
Triple H said in an interview with The Independent in regards to the criticism over the lack of women at the Greatest Royal Rumble event in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, “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.”
In regards to WWE’s product, there’s a sense of change in the air. I’m not just talking about the grand scale ‘Women’s Evolution’, but also more recent events such as the Shake Up from last week and Brock Lesnar (more than likely) finally passing on the Universal Championship to Roman Reigns. I get this sense that Monday Night RAW will finally be able to drive down that new road after the Greatest Royal Rumble. Not forgetting that SmackDown Live also feels anew, with their mid card truly springing into action after the fates of the US and Intercontinental Championships have been decided in Jeddah.
The GRR is an event with huge positives for the future spinning off of it, and I don’t mean just for WWE. The announcement of this grand event was met with one huge question from some of their Western audience: what about the women? An understandable response given WWE’s stance on pushing their female division as just as good as the men’s, but is the answer really that simple?
After researching the subject, I couldn’t possibly give a black and white answer. I’ve seen more than a few quick judgements on Twitter uttering something along the lines of, “Because money.” But I found that sentiment odd because of my own question: why does Saudi Arabia even want the WWE all of a sudden? Well, just like with WWE, there is that something in the air. If you were to ask me now why WWE are putting on a huge event in Saudi Arabia, I’d answer with this abstract, vague response…
Long story short, Saudi Arabia has been in the middle of big change for the past couple of years. The country realises that future generations won’t be able to rely on the money from oil, so is investing heavily in business for said future. There has already been a societal shift, in part thanks to this thing called the internet. I’ll get back to that later. Today’s children will have to work harder for their living than their parents and with that comes a greater need to relax or release stress. So those in power have used a motto along the lines of, “Work harder, but have more fun.”
They need to build for the future and with most of the population under the age of 30, that time to build is now. A sentiment which has been pushed strongly by Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who was made first in line to the throne last June by his father King Salman. A move which has been seen as a huge shake up, there has already been plenty of changes in what appears to be in preparation for a formal transfer of power. MBS is bringing about a large influx of social changes, from what I can tell these are mostly things the people of Saudi Arabia have been calling for.
Firstly, they have began to change a wide number of rules/laws. A couple were pretty much redundant but were seen as positive changes, others more drastic shifts. And yes, I’ll start with their alterations in regards to women’s rights. In September it was announced that women will be allowed to drive from June 2018, a little later they were told that in short time women will no longer need permission from men to go out by themselves and in January women attended their first soccer matches. Girls are also now allowed to participate in Physical Education lessons and attend a wide range of events, with a Women’s Cycling Race taking part earlier this year. Women’s rights are still a way off from Western standards, but this isn’t the West and change takes time.
This past week the Arab nation had their first film in theatres in 35 years since the cinema ban; the movie shown was Black Panther. Why was the ban removed? Multiple reasons. In 2016, according to Internet Live Stats, over 20 million people of the 32 million population in Saudi Arabia were internet users. With apparently 2/3rds of the population accessing a film via the internet every week, with another number just simply going outside the country to watch in cinemas over there (Dubai or Bahrain for example). In 2017 a government body estimated that Saudis spent what amounted up to be 5% of the country’s GDP on entertainment/hospitality in those other countries. To put that more startlingly, that’s around $30 billion.
So the cinema ban was practically redundant, but it marked a positive step and makes all the sense in the world to try and bring that money back into Saudi Arabia. The want for entertainment sectors was clearly there and now many cinemas have opened via the government’s wealth fund, ensuring the money gets reinvested into the economy and jobs. This is where WWE comes in. Saudi Arabia are heavily investing in their entertainment sector and the McMahons would have to be awful businessmen/women to turn down an opportunity to get into a market like this. The demand is there and WWE have just been offered the opportunity to be the supply, an incredible offer to be at the forefront of such a big change. It’s not, “Why would WWE so yes to that?” It’s “Why would they say no?”
A Long Term Narrative
Saudi Arabia are in the middle of a shake up of their own, a significant cultural shift. WWE are now a part of that. With an agreement for a long term deal with the Arab nation’s government, the McMahon empire is rolling on that wheel of change. With more live events to come over the years, of which will be attended by both men AND women. In a country where that would have been mostly unthinkable even just two years ago, that’s a remarkable thing to be a part of. Hell, the first show with a woman performing happened this December, so the old adage of ‘never say never’ comes to mind.
It’s not even that much of a gamble, you know I brought up the country’s high internet usage? Well the YouTube numbers for the region are incredibly high, the people are interested even if the show isn’t publicly broadcasted. So the announcement of the arena selling out really isn’t that much of a surprise, not forgetting the added appeal of a slice Western entertainment coming live to their home land. It makes all the sense in the world for WWE to try and penetrate the Saudi market.
It also makes all the sense in the world for the Saudi government to invest heavily in this sort of Western culture, part of trying to get the population to reinvest that $30 billion back into their own market. And WWE simply being there will act as another part of a Western influence to the culture, something the internet and foreign business was naturally bringing in anyway. This is an example of the Saudi government giving their people what they want, who am I to say no to that?
The theme of this column has been that change is slow, and WWE putting on the Greatest Royal Rumble is a huge leap of said change for Saudi Arabia. As I said, by Western standards the country has a long way to go, but I can’t entirely judge another country/religion by my own standards. For example I’ve come to understand that I can’t possibly understand the strong support for guns or paid healthcare in America, the US is a foreign country and my British perspectives don’t entirely match up. Same thing with some of the values held by some in Saudi Arabia (don’t forget they are also people with a wide range of opinions too), but I can applaud change and understand these things take time.
The Greatest Royal Rumble is an interesting step forward for both WWE and Saudi Arabia, with both surely influencing each other in ways we are yet to see. It’s exciting to witness, but we’ll see how things go in time. You can decide for yourself whether this long term picture of change is enough of a positive for you, but I hope I’ve given you enough to make your own decision. I myself am not going to blindly ignore some of the more controversial aspects (puts it lightly, but this is a wrestling column not a BBC article) of the Salmans’ tenure in power so far, but by that same standard I can’t brush aside all of the positive aspects either.
Females may only be allowed to attend with a male, men may only be allowed sit on the front row with a woman in their party to portray a certain picture, but that is a step forward from no women in attendance at all. As I said at the start, it’s not easy to give such a black and white response when the issue is so much more complex than my personal view. But I will applaud change, no matter how small a step it seems from the outside. A step is still a step.
This Thursday I will be LIVE on LOP Radio with for Perfect 10 Wrestling, previewing this biggest fan service extravaganzer WWE has ever produced, the Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia.
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