Editor's Note: Media reports have emerged that a dispute between the professional wrestling promoter WWE and Saudi Arabia over payments for the group's biannual events in the kingdom may have led to the delay of a flight on Nov. 2 taking its performers and staff back to the United States. While the details remain unclear, the episode raises questions about Saudi Arabia's pursuit of global sporting events that this contributor perspective, originally published in October 2018, explores.
After several years as a university professor, I have learned that when your audience consists of sleep-deprived young people, it's best to ease into the day's material. I tend to start most class meetings with a brief discussion of current events. The unfolding narrative surrounding the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi provided a particularly rich vein of discussion. One student wondered why so much attention was being paid to a small and faraway place like Saudi Arabia. Before I could go on a rant about geopolitics and the global system, I was mollified when a couple of his fellow students piped up with a mention of something along the lines of "they're small but super-rich and kind of a big deal." Jokes about the eloquence and insights of modern students aside, this was a pretty fair distillation: Saudi Arabia, the second smallest member of the G-20 by population, possesses the second-highest gross domestic product per capita, not to mention the substantial reserves of crude that make it the 800-pound gorilla of the world oil market.
By most standards, Saudi Arabia tends to punch above its weight in geopolitical matters. However, the same cannot be said about sports in the kingdom. Whether considering the performance of its national and Olympic teams, the number of major sports events hosted by the country or the development of professional leagues, the Saudis are G-20 bottom-feeders, arguably superior only to Indonesia in this regard. Yes, they have a decent professional soccer league compared to the region (money helps). They also hosted the first three iterations of what is now called the Confederations Cup, FIFA's marginally prestigious World Cup warm-up tournament, and have qualified five times for the World Cup proper. Some members of the royal family have also held symbolic leadership posts in FIFA and the International Olympic Committee's sport governance apparatus (again, money helps).
Sports as an Economic Strategy
These are notable accomplishments for a small nation, but it would be a stretch to consider Saudi Arabia to be anything but a minor player in global sports. This began to change two years ago as it began making moves to develop a major sports event portfolio. This push fell under the umbrella of Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's sweeping economic and cultural reform plan that kicked off in the spring of 2016. As Stratfor has noted in several analyses, Vision 2030 bears the hallmarks of a typical grandiose political master plan: lots of optimistic language, plenty of ambition and minimal specifics. But it's not all grandstanding on the part of the prince and the Saudi leadership: Underpinning Vision 2030 is a serious attempt to court international interest and investment with the aim of developing a sustainable economy for the post-oil future. Now, as the controversy surrounding Khashoggi's death continues to unfold, the future of the sports-centered branch of Vision 2030 is far from clear.
Scanning the original Vision 2030 document reveals little about concrete plans for sports. The only direct mentions of sports that I could find are contained to one paragraph, focusing largely on participation. Here is the paragraph in its entirety:
"A healthy and balanced lifestyle is an essential mainstay of a high quality of life. Yet opportunities for the regular practice of sports have often been limited. This will change. We intend to encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities, working in partnership with the private sector to establish additional dedicated facilities and programs. This will enable citizens and residents to engage in a wide variety of sports and leisure pursuits. We aspire to excel in sport and be among the leaders in selected sports regionally and globally."
The 2020 National Transformation Program, the first official stage of Vision 2030 that kicked off in June 2016, laid out more explicit sport-related goals, including increasing return on investment for stadiums, boosting exercise rates across the population and improving national team performance in the Olympics. By the end of 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed's Council of Economic and Development Affairs directed the General Sports Authority to create a sports development fund. The health-based, sport participation goals of Vision 2030 were still given some lip service in the creation of the fund, but it was a clear directive to bolster competitive sports output and to develop the necessary infrastructure to host major events. Plus, it was touted as potentially creating up to 40,000 jobs.
Transforming the Social Climate
Job creation is not the only way an events portfolio could turn into a wise investment. Vision 2030 generally loosens the restrictions on entertainment in the country, with the hope that a greater portion of Saudi consumer spending will stay at home. Saudis have traditionally traveled abroad for such events, whether to the West or to their relatively more liberal neighbors, which have benefited financially from cultural restrictions in the kingdom. There are also tangential economic effects, with marquee events potentially boosting inbound tourism, not to mention job creation in fields needed to support and deliver the events and related programming like construction and information technology.
The General Sports Authority seems to have taken its mission seriously. Just since the start of 2018, Saudi Arabia has hosted a World Series of Squash tournament for women (the first women's professional sports event in the country), the annual motorsports Race of Champions (a bit of a novelty event featuring drivers from diverse racing disciplines) and the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight championship (the WBSS features some decent fighters but is generally considered inferior to other global boxing organizations). While none of these events are top-flight sports programming, they represented a measured, deliberate and manageable approach to event hosting.
There was also a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event this past April. "The Greatest Royal Rumble" drew 60,000 fans to the arena in Jeddah and millions more to watch on pay-per-view. We can leave the debate about whether or not WWE is a "sport" for another day, but it is certainly a serious global enterprise. The rumble was the first event in a 10-year deal that cost the General Sports Authority a cool $450 million. Yes, this is the same WWE that once featured Middle Eastern characters as villains ("heels" in wrestling parlance). The evil Iron Sheik held forth during the 1980s, and in the early part of this century, Muhammad Hassan was a featured player, at least until the character's abrupt end in 2005 following a poorly conceived terrorism-based storyline. But, times change, and the WWE is an expansion-minded global mega brand. Plus, "scripted" wrestling has the luxury of being manipulated without sacrificing authenticity. In the United States, the WWE has bolstered its popularity with an increasingly large stable of women wrestlers, serious athletes who perform in provocative outfits. Unsurprisingly, they did not make the bill back in April. (More recently, a pair of women pro wrestlers performed in Abu Dhabi, but donned modest bodysuits made for the occasion.) Sami Zayn, a wrestler of Syrian descent, was also forbidden from working the Saudi event.
The "sports aren't political" mantra allows both state and sporting actors to craft desirable narratives to suit their ideological ends.
When the Saudi deal first emerged, there was some predictable backlash from fans who felt that the WWE should not be buddying up to its repressive government. The organization issued a fairly predictable rejoinder to the criticism: "WWE is committed to embracing individuals from all backgrounds while respecting local customs and cultural differences around the world." Predictable as it may have been, it nevertheless speaks to the unique space in which we allow sports to operate. As I've written on numerous occasions in this space, the "sports aren't political" mantra allows both state and sporting actors to craft desirable narratives to suit their ideological ends. In cases like this, organizations like the WWE are practically playing with house money: They are off the hook for any political realities under Saudi rule, but in the event that a positive story or two comes out of their presence in the kingdom, they can immediately lay claim to the power of sports to drive change, make peace, bring understanding and so on. Thus, despite the blowback, it was little surprise that an even bigger WWE event in Saudi Arabia was put on the calendar for Nov. 2 of this year.
The Fallout From the Khashoggi Scandal
This was all, of course, before the Khashoggi case grabbed global attention. While the United States and other Saudi allies were navigating the fallout, last week's "Davos in the Desert" conference was tarnished by the withdrawal of support and participation from global leaders in politics, business and the media. While the long-term ramifications of the affair, including possible sanctions from the United States and others, are unknown, there is no way to sugarcoat this setback; much of Vision 2030 is rooted in public-private partnerships and transmitting a refreshed national identity. The international rebuke also touched the sports world, when the Endeavor Group – the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship – walked away from a deal that included a $400 million investment from the Saudi government. Endeavor's decision has been framed as a direct response to the Saudi regime, but it may have been influenced by the criticism that the UFC has received for its increasingly chummy relationship with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's burgeoning martial arts empire.
In the midst of these swift responses, the WWE was slow to act, protecting their interests with statements that they were "monitoring the situation." As days passed and the event date approached, the organization offered a mixed bag of responses. A couple wrestlers appeared in the mainstream media, suggesting that the show should go on, because well, not going wouldn't change anything anyway. This fatalistic sentiment was reportedly matched by many of the financial investors who did not withdraw from the Saudi business conference. A little less than two weeks out, the words "Saudi Arabia" seemed to disappear from most official WWE content surrounding the event, dubbed "Crown Jewel." Ticket sales did not commence when they were supposed to. Rumors emerged that some megastars – including the sometimes Hollywood actor John Cena – would refuse to participate. But, for the most part, the organization kept quiet through official channels. The very active online wrestling community was rife with speculation as to whether or not the event would happen.
On Oct. 25, confirmation came that the event will go on, but it came in a curious and low-key format – via a listing in the organization's quarterly financial report. The report condemns the "heinous crime" committed in Istanbul, but notes that the WWE intends to honor its commitment to the General Sports Authority and is following other U.S. companies that will continue operations in Saudi Arabia. The WWE business outlook also notes that financial guidance is "predicated on the staging of the Riyadh event."
It's hard to be surprised by this outcome, a scripted response from the masters of scripted sports entertainment. There is simply too much money at stake for the WWE, and they know that they can ultimately control the narrative. While its decision may cost it some U.S. and European fans, the WWE likely considers that an acceptable tradeoff for the chance to grow its Middle East footprint. The WWE story may be done for now, but the future role of sports events as a socio-economic driver in the kingdom remains to be seen. Tennis superstars Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have been heavily criticized on social media for an exhibition match slated for Jeddah in December. There are also Formula E racing and European Tour golf events on the Saudi winter calendar; for now, both organizations are taking the "monitoring the situation" route over the controversy. With "wait and see" emerging as the dominant theme, the Saudi leadership might do well to take notes on how to sell a comeback story when the wrestlers take to the ring for Crown Jewel at the end of the week.