World Wrestling Entertainment held their latest show in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, their fifth under a ten year deal with the Kingdom. It was your typical WWE show featuring pyro, championship matches, tag team wrestling, and a match for a Saudi-specific prize.
Two things stand out from the spectacle, possibly revealing a glimmer of hope for human rights in Saudi Arabia.
The first was the match between Smackdown Women’s Champion Bayley and Naomi.
WWE previously featured female performers in Saudi Arabia including the first women’s match ever last year. The Bayley-Naomi match was a championship match, however, meaning it ‘broke ground’ for lack of a better term even within the worked environment of professional wrestling. Bayley and Naomi were allowed a little more freedom to showcase their skills including one where Naomi was thrown into a ringside barrier. A mite tougher than last year’s semi-basic affair between Natalya and Lacey Evans (best guess is the latter were told to keep things simple).
Saudi Arabia, despite their horrible human rights record, attempted a bit of liberalization over the past decade sending female athletes to the Olympics. Saudi Sports launched their first women’s soccer league last Monday but the cynic in me takes a wait and see attitude on its long-term viability. The WWE matches may be another sign that women will get further sporting opportunities in a country where equality has been a seemingly unattainable dream.
Yet, even more interesting was the end of the show featuring almost all of Mohammed Abdu Arena on the Boulevard cheering as Bill Goldberg won the WWE Universal Championship. That’s right, hundreds of Saudi Arabian Muslims roared in approval as someone San Diego Jewish Journal once proclaimed “The Hebrew Hulk” captured one of the top prizes in WWE.
The irony is unmistakable. Judaism is not welcome in Saudi Arabia. There are no synagogues in the Kingdom and the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca once prayed for the destruction of all Jews. Yet, Goldberg was booked to win the belt in Saudi Arabia.
This raises an obvious question. Did WWE purposefully switch the belt onto Goldberg as a way to provide an avenue towards moderation in Saudi Arabia?
The answer is maybe, but probably not.
“If someone asked WWE, I could see their PR team pointing out that the company has been trying to help move things forward culturally, as that’s the tag line when they have their female performers on the Saudi events,” Mike Johnson from PWInsider.com told me in an email about Goldberg’s win. “My gut feeling, however, is that the real reason the title switch was done there was based on one factor – financials. They likely wanted to slide Goldberg into their Wrestlemania plans ASAP. Wrestlemania is not sold out. Goldberg vs. John Cena and Goldberg vs. Roman Reigns, etc. Theoretically, those are big dream matches that the average person might be entranced in wanting to see and pay for. I think that’s more of the big picture thought process there…”
Johnson also noted Royal Family members are huge fans of 90’s era wrestling which would include Goldberg, who was once one of WCW’s top stars. The Saudi shows are meant to be a big spectacle.
“I just don’t know that it was booked with the idea of being some sort of backdoor cultural milestone. “ Johnson opined while nothing it’s still culturally unique. “It was booked because it fit into WWE’s plans and they thought it was a good attraction for the show.”
Saudi Arabia has a long way to go before its culture and human rights record catches up to America. Dissidents are murdered, women are treated horribly, the press is suppressed, and religious minorities are persecuted.
Yet, for one night, thousands of Saudis applauded a Jew from Georgia for winning a professional wrestling match. And freedom also won.