Just before the start of the 2018 World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Greatest” Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia, four local professional wrestling hopefuls were showcased inside the ring. Their moment was quickly hijacked when two WWE stars, the Daivari brothers, accosted and mocked them in front of the Saudi crowd, which quickly became livid at the display. The Iranian-American Daivari brothers waved the flag of Iran and dared the Saudi wrestlers to hit them. To the cheers of thousands of Saudis, the four Saudi wrestlers pummeled the brothers who scampered off stage defeated. The moment seemed innocuous to the average WWE viewer in the United States, but in that exchange, a political message lurked.
Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, and the spectacle reminded Saudis and all of WWE’s viewers that Iranians are a villainous people who should be fought hard and beaten down. WWE sees professional wrestling as a uniquely American spectacle: part gladiator-style arena fight and part ballet, with a hint of Greek tragedy thrown in. Pro wrestling is the American spirit incarnate, so why is it engaged in war-mongering propaganda efforts on behalf of the Saudi regime?
Bin Salman is selling his ongoing proxy war in Yemen while putting a sporting face on the war’s catastrophic destruction and his moves to centralize all aspects of Saudi Arabia.
The answer lies with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Mohammad bin Salman, and his ongoing efforts to reform the image of his country on the global stage. Bin Salman is recruiting unlikely partners for his global campaign to champion the Saudi cause against the Iranian ghoul. Simultaneously he’s selling his proxy war in Yemen while putting a sporting face on the war’s catastrophic destruction and bin Salman’s moves to centralize all aspects of Saudi Arabia’s government around himself. This includes selling Saudi Arabia to Americans by signing lucrative deals to host events like the WWE’s annual Royal Rumble, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Formula E racing, and the World Boxing Super Series Cruiserweight title fight. Bin Salman bought the Royal Rumble and the WWE’s most beloved wrestlers, like Triple H and John Cena, in a bid for America’s heart, and in this sense, he won it before a champion was ever declared.
A young and ambitious member of the vast Saudi royal family, bin Salman has been battling other powerful Saudis and Iranians for years. When he was selected to be the country’s minister of defense in 2015, he almost immediately sent the military into Yemen, already pitched into chaos by a civil war. The Iranian-backed rebel Houthi militia fighting against the Yemeni government, bin Salman thought, had to be stopped at all costs lest Iran cement a foothold on Saudi Arabia’s doorsteps. Saudi jets, generously assisted by the U.S., U.K., and U.A.E., began bombing Yemen’s agricultural infrastructure out of existence before blocking off its naval ports and airports, allowing bin Salman to control everything that was moved in and out of Yemen.
The ongoing blockade and bombing campaign has prevented critical food, water, and medical supplies from reaching Yemen’s twenty-eight million people. So effective at deprivation is bin Salman that experts and organizations trying to work in Yemen estimate that about twenty-two million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly ten million of these Yemenis are on the brink of famine. Since 2016, Yemen has also been experiencing a historically unprecedented cholera outbreak.
Unable to uproot Iranian influence from Yemen, bin Salman was quickly stuck in a stalling war, one that drained Saudi Arabia’s coffers, already diminishing thanks to low oil prices. On top of that, the war was increasingly viewed as an unequivocal catastrophe by the international community. To this, bin Salman responded by seeking even more control over Saudi Arabia and its global image. He began pressuring his way to the top of Saudi’s royal food chain to get the coveted position of Crown Prince.
The annual WWE Royal Rumble event is the most brutal, chaotic, and dramatic wrestling match of the year. Dozens of men pile into the ring, trying to stay inside the ropes for as long as possible. Alliances are formed and broken spontaneously as wrestlers team up and then theatrically betray one another. In 2009 Matt Hardy infamously sold out his brother Jeff Hardy in a last-ditch effort to claim the championship belt. Matt slammed a steel chair into Jeff’s unsuspecting head; Jeff crumbled into a heap in front of thousands of bewitched, screaming fans. “The only person I care about is me,” Matt stated with dead eyes—a concise summary of what a Royal Rumble is all about. Such heartbreaking displays of fratricide give the Royal Rumble its reputation; it’s an event where power and glory is up for grabs, but only one can have it all. In Saudi Arabia, it’s an apt metaphor for the crown.
In the summer of 2017, bin Salman knocked out his greatest competition for the royal throne, Mohammed bin Nayef. Bin Salman held Nayef, a distant relative, against his will in King Abdulaziz’s palace in Mecca until Nayef gave up the position. Locked into a fourth-story room overnight and coerced by the King’s men, Nayef eventually relinquished his spot when he was told that other powerful royals were convinced Nayef’s ouster was for the best. The public reason for the change in succession to the throne was that Nayef’s burgeoning drug habit had become a liability. “An addiction to painkilling drugs was clouding MbN [Nayef]’s judgment,” Reuters’ breaking report relayed.
In reality, Nayef opposed elements of bin Salman’s anti-Iranian campaign. Bin Salman then set his sights on silencing any within his country who could viably challenge his attempts to centralize the state. After releasing the comprehensive “Saudi Vision 2030” in April, 2016, which calls for more social rights for women, diversifying Saudi’s economy and opening itself up to outside investment, bin Salman led an internal purge, one he claimed would rid the Saudi political system of anybody leaching funds from the economy for personal gain.
After quickly forming the ad hoc “Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee,” bin Salman had hundreds of royals arrested, ordering some to be tortured and pressuring all to give up their money. At least seventeen were hospitalized after being held at a Ritz-Carlton which was turned into a makeshift jail for the elite. Major General Ali al-Qahtani, a former top aide to a senior Saudi prince who was a rival to bin Salman, was found dead. His neck was “twisted unnaturally as though it had been broken” and his body was covered in electric burns. All in all, bin Salman extorted over $100 billion from his detainees.
Bin Salman has since spent billions on public relations efforts in order to facilitate outside investment. According to a Human Rights Watch expert I spoke with, the effort is to attract international investors while distracting from rights abuses. By hosting the WWE event, among others, “I would see this as Saudi Arabia really trying to prove it to be an outward looking country,” he said. “A lot of [his PR campaigns] are to distract attention from,” bin Salman’s widespread rights violations in Yemen and in his own country. Saudi Arabia can more easily sell itself as a progressive nation “if they can sell this guy as a visionary reformist,” he added in reference to bin Salman.
He has also remained steadfast with his war in Yemen which has to date killed more than fifteen thousand people.
Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the WWE’s “Greatest” Royal Rumble was part of this effort, intended to make a “global splash” and to make it known in the American Heartland—where roughly three million viewers tune in each week—that Saudi Arabia is their friend. It is a strategic pro-Saudi message delivered in a language that U.S. wrestling fans can easily understand.
While bin Salman continues to bid on more international sporting events, including upcoming boxing and racing tournaments, he has also remained steadfast with his war in Yemen, which has to date killed more than fifteen thousand people. And yet, bin Salman’s global PR campaign seems to be working. Israel is now cooperating with Saudi Arabia on neutralizing the Palestinian issue by pressuring Palestinian leaders to accept a deal that recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Bin Salman later told a U.S.-based Jewish group that Palestinians should agree to Trump’s terms or “shut up and stop complaining.” Israel has also ramped up its bombing of Iranian facilities inside Syria. Trump’s May 8 departure from the Iran nuclear deal on sanctions and nuclear disarmament has cemented the United States as a military foe to Iran.
Meanwhile the WWE is scheduled to host more big-name matches in Saudi Arabia over the next decade, conscripting the Daivari brothers, their brutal colleagues, and the rest of us into bin Salman’s righteousness and dirty proxy war.