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WWE ran its first show in Saudi Arabia in 2014, and would go onto run between 2 to 4 times a year up until 2018. By hosting a few house shows there a year, they were able to get a foothold in the emerging Middle Eastern wrestling market – also touring in Abu Dhabi. But little did they know those Saudi events would lead to them making more money per show than their biggest one of the year in the US, WrestleMania, and also to arguably the biggest public criticism of the company in over a decade.
During those early years, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS to his mates, controversially became Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince – quickly purging the ruling class of his rivals, putting almost 200 businessmen and princes under house arrest as part of a power grab in the country. This coincided with an aggressive PR tour of the Western world, travelling to America to pose with Barack Obama, Donald Trump and even Rock ‘The Dwayne’ Johnson. The centrepiece of all this was Saudi Arabia’s new Vision 2030 scheme – where the country would refocus away from oil to other businesses, and also by relaxing religious laws, even allowing women to drive for the first time in decades. Such modernisation, much progressive. He also established an entertainment authority to start bringing in large scale live events including comedy shows, monster truck rallies, and, of course, professional wrestling.
WWE’s first live event as part of the new deal, the Greatest Royal Rumble, took place in April last year, and saw such huge matches as John Cena vs Triple H, The Undertaker vs Rusev, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns in a steel cage, and a 50 man Royal Rumble for a giant Mario Kart trophy. The show was criticised for being a propaganda piece for MBS’ Saudi Arabian regime, as the commentators frequently referred to the host city of Jeddah, very specifically, as “progressive” – making the broadcast more about showing the Western world how great Saudi Arabia is rather than being an actual wrestling show.
It was an uncomfortable experience for not just many of the viewing audience, with the Network seeing a notable drop in subscribers, but also for many of the wrestlers themselves – with Daniel Bryan and John Cena reportedly refusing to work any more shows in the country. Because while MBS did have his modernising Vision 2030 campaign, the country was also plagued by:
-severe human rights abuses!
-leading a proxy war in the nearby country of Yemen!
-cracking down on LGBT equality.
-and, most hypocritically, having a terrible record on women’s rights in the midst of WWE pushing their women’s evolution narrative with the signing of Ronda Rousey, meaning no women wrestlers could feature on the show.
But WWE are PR experts. For their next event later that year in November, Crown Jewel, they staged the very well received all-women’s pay-per-view Evolution to attempt to counterbalance their notable absence on the all-male show in Saudi Arabia. What they didn’t account for, though, is the Saudi Arabian government killing and gruesomely dismembering the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their Turkish embassy a few weeks beforehand.
This prompted a number of high-profile companies to pull out of their business relationships with Saudi Arabia, with Google, Uber, Viacom and even the UFC withdrawing from upcoming deals. But not WWE. Instead they had the boss of the company’s son go over there and win the World Cup To Determine the Best Wrestler In The World. Nailed it.
WWE pushed ahead despite the larger ethical and moral concerns, hosting June’s Super Showdown, and Crown Jewel last week – which, to their credit, saw them put on the country’s first ever women’s wrestling match between Natalya and Lacey Evans. And, far more importantly, the Fiend winning the Universal Championship – Come on Fiend!
But the story wasn’t over with Crown Jewel, as the majority of the WWE roster and crew found themselves stuck in the country, unable to fly back for the following day’s SmackDown, amidst reports of disagreements between Vince McMahon himself and the Saudi Arabian government. It turns out, that getting into bed with a dictator’s regime complicit in numerous abuses of human rights, can sometimes come back and bite you on the arse.
News came out late Thursday night after Crown Jewel had finished that over 175 WWE wrestlers and crew were stranded in Riyadh as, for whatever reason, the plane wouldn’t take off. Which was particularly problematic because most of them had to be in New York for the episode of SmackDown the following night.
WWE put out a statement addressing the situation on Friday claiming
“After the door closed, due to several aircraft problems including mechanical issues, all passengers sat on the tarmac for more than six hours. With SmackDown set to emanate live from Buffalo, N.Y., several Superstars felt so strongly that they arranged for their own separate charter in order to make it back to the U.S. for the show. Due to unforeseen issues, that charter will not land until after the live broadcast on FOX. The remainder of WWE’s Superstars, staff and crew will depart on a charter set to depart Saudi Arabia later tonight.”
The flight was originally meant to leave at 3am local time on Thursday night. Vince McMahon and his staff left the country earlier on his private jet, with Fightful reporting “One talent said that Vince was out of there hours ago, while talent was still on the ground”.
Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman had also already left on their private jet, likely shortly after Lesnar’s two minute win against Cain Velasquez at the start of the show – he ain’t paid by the hour, folks – as had Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and Jimmy Hart on a separate private jet – from where Flair and Hart posted this photo stylin and/or profiling. .
Fightful then reported that second charter flight referenced in the WWE statement was able to take off with “Roman Reigns, Bobby Lashley, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bray Wyatt, Big E, Kofi Kingston, Scott Dawson, Dash Wilder and a few others”. All of those apart from Lashley had been advertised for that night’s SmackDown, but with the flight being 14 hours long, it was always going to be tough to make it back for the Friday show from Crown Jewel the night before, and the delay meant they didn’t make it back in time at all.
As is usually the way with WWE, they actually put on an excellent show with their backs against the wall, staging an NXT invasion of SmackDown to build this month’s Survivor Series – flying NXT wrestlers in on another chartered flight that only landed in New York just five minutes before the show began! The NXT invasion storyline was a last-minute decision, and was not planned in advance despite this year’s Survivor Series theme including them.
But while the plane’s ‘mechanical issues’ were the company line, reports have the actual truth being a lot scarier.
Initial rumours from the Wrestling Observer and Fightful alleged “Vince McMahon got in some kind of disagreement in Saudi Arabia.”
These rumours were strengthened by a Facebook livestream from Hugo Savinovich, a former Spanish-language commentator for WWE who now works for AAA. Savinovich claimed that WWE was owed between $300 to $500 million for two of the shows they’ve held in Saudi Arabia so far – which might be an exaggerated figure as previous reports have only had the Saudi shows making WWE $40-50 million per event.
Savinovich goes onto claim that McMahon retaliated to Saudi Arabia not paying the money by cutting off the Crown Jewel live TV feed in the country. Apparently the Crown Prince was so unhappy with this, he ordered WWE talent be taken off the plane before it was scheduled to take off.
Interestingly, parts of this story match up with WWE’s own Q3 earnings call that took place on the day of the show, with the company’s Co-President George Barrios revealing a $60 million payment had been made to them for “an outstanding receivable” after the end of the quarter – although he didn’t specify where the money actually came from. Also, in the country itself, Crown Jewel reportedly started on a 40 minute delay later than it was scheduled on MBC Action TV network, which fans in the country began to tweet about – implying that Vince did indeed pull the plug until he reached an agreement with the Saudis mid-show.
Dave Meltzer has since confirmed that WWE weren’t paid for the previous Saudi show as of the 30th September, and that, very understandably, the wrestlers left behind by McMahon were deeply upset…
According to Wrestling Observer Radio, many of the WWE crew left behind felt betrayed by both the company and their boss:
“There’s obviously a lot of people very, very upset that Vince got out. Vince, Kevin Dunn and his staff left immediately. They got out on their own private jet…
“I know people who say they’re never going to go back. I know people who say they can’t wait to get out of the company.”
The wrestlers were told that the delay was because of a mechanical failure, and apparently the company was attempting to get video from as many of the performers as possible to say that on tape. But while at least one talent believed it, as they saw mechanics working on the plane, many others didn’t, asking why were there military police there, and why weren’t they just put on another flight?
The feelings are so strong that many of the wrestlers have expressed their disappointment publicly on Twitter, with a Reddit user claiming Scott Dawson liked a tweet from @GreatBrianLast that reads “Vince left his troops on the battle field. A leader doesn’t do that.”
And Karl Anderson posting “Couldn’t pay me enough to go back .. Well that’s not true, I need a second pool, so…..”
To which his hot Asian wife replied: “2nd house!! Not a pool..but don’t ever go back AGAIN! We don’t need our daddy/papi/motherlover/absanderson/besttagteam etc. being held hostage while we’re at home worried to death ❤️”
A stark reminder of the situation not just affecting the wrestlers and crew stuck on the ground, but also their families at home.
One of the biggest flare-ups, though, came around WWE’s choice of wording in their original statement – where they wrote: “several Superstars felt so strongly that they arranged for their own separate charter in order to make it back to the U.S. for the show.” In reference to the plane that just missed SmackDown, and contained 20 crew members, most of whom were advertised including Reigns, Nakamura, The New Day and Revival.
The insinuation is that all those that were left behind didn’t feel strongly enough about getting to SmackDown, an idea Meltzer calls “complete bulls-word’. It’s good BullS-word! And led to a number of WWE stars posting with the hashtag NotTop20 – making fun of the idea they didn’t feel strongly enough to be in that extra chartered flight.
Luke Harper posted upon landing: “Larry, I’m home. I guess I didn’t want it enough to pay for my own charter, but I’m home now. #NotTop20”. You’ll get your release one day, Luke!
To which Eric Young replied: “I’ll pitch in guys. Next time I’ll have more pride in my self and take it upon my self to be better! What a world. What a FN UNIVERSE!!,”
And AEW Champion Chris Jericho joked “Shame on you lazy embarrassments to the company” before posting the much nicer “Glad everybody made it home safely KISS EMOJI!”
Curtis Axel tweeted: “Not the #Top20???I’m #1 at home! We don’t leave each other behind. @WWE”.
Karl Anderson has also tweeted: “Looking forward to seeing who the locker room leader is on Monday.. ? ❤️” – setting the stage for what will undoubtedly be a very tense backstage atmosphere at Raw tonight, with the wrestlers deeply unhappy with the way the company has treated their wellbeing and safety, with Meltzer saying one source described the wrestlers being used as “pawns in a dick-waving contest” between McMahon and the Saudi government.
What do you think about WWE’s treatment of their wrestlers? Let me know in the comments down below, and I’ll be replying from outta nowhere saying BUT SMACKDOWN WAS GOOD RIGHT?!
Find out what happened with NXT’s invasion of the SmackDown main roster by clicking the video on the right! And watch our new Best of WrestleTalk Live round-up by clicking the video below that! I’ve been Oli Davis, and that was wrestling.