Looking At The Saudi Arabia Debacle

You reap what you sow-Galatians 6:7

When the WWE entered into a deal with the Saudi Arabian government last year, it was rightfully subject to much criticism, especially after the planned murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist that was critical of the Mohammad Bin Salman regime. Despite the controversy surrounding the initial event and the follow-up show, WWE continued its partnership with the country as basically a form of government propaganda to give the impression that the country was evolving toward modern society.

As I wrote at the time, everybody’s got a price, and this overseas deal saw the WWE scheduled to get paid millions of dollars for these events, making it one of the most profitable revenue streams for the global, publicly-traded company. This contract along with the mega TV rights deals the organization inked with Fox and USA sets the stage for record-setting profit next year and a continued boost for the stock price. While the company certainly doesn’t need the money because the TV contracts alone will set a revenue record for them, the major cash from the Saudi government was enough for Vince McMahon to bring highly-promoted events to the region.

All things considered, these shows always seemed to have a negative atmosphere around them in some form or fashion. In some ways, it was almost surprising that something hadn’t gone off the rails already, but there was the very tense situation that occurred last week after the Crown Jewel pay-per-view. To say details on what actually did or didn’t happen are murky would be a major understatement, as the company line touts nothing unusual, while industry insiders and even outside media outlets shed light on rumors of a potentially much more serious situation.

After the conclusion of the pay-per-view, the plane that was scheduled to depart Saudi Arabia with a narrow time frame to get the talent to Buffalo for Friday’s live Smackdown broadcast apparently wasn’t allowed to leave. The WWE statement claimed that the problem was simply “mechanical problems” and that some of the talent attempted to charter a plane to be able to return for Smackdown. Still, considering the Saudi government’s less than stellar reputation, something seemed off about this story, mostly because if the talent was going to charter a plane, why was the charter also delayed?

Since the news surfaced, it prompted a lot of speculation and it was revealed that Vince McMahon had some type of disagreement with the Saudi prince because the WWE is still owned money from the previous events held in the country. According to The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, Vince decided to cut the live feed in the country because of the money dispute, which led to the talent being not allowed to leave after the show. With nothing confirmed through the company, most of this can only be considered as rumor, but on the company’s conference call last week, there was reportedly millions of dollars listed in “accounts receivable” so it appears that the promotion was owned money.

Thankfully, the day after the wrestlers were scheduled to land in Buffalo, they finally made it back to the United States. As a result of most of the roster on the trip, an impromptu NXT debut was booked for Smackdown, which saw Daniel Bryan challenge Adam Cole for the NXT championship in a tremendous match. I was very surprised that Vince McMahon left Saudi Arabia while his roster was stuck there, but there are reports that he might’ve left before there was any problem with the travel arrangements. As much as some people try to portray Vince as a villain because of his ruthless business model, it’s very doubtful that he would’ve left had he known his roster might be in jeopardy. Say what you want about Vince the businessman, but I just don’t think he would knowingly leave them behind. It’s often said that Vince wouldn’t ask his wrestlers to do anything he wouldn’t do and if nothing else, I think he would’ve made sure they returned home safely because it’s part of the leadership that made him as successful as he is today.

Don’t get me wrong, this entire scenario wasn’t some attempt to hold WWE wrestlers hostage because the ripple effect of that would ruin any chance of the propaganda efforts the country tries to project to the rest of the world. More specifically, the other western events that are scheduled for the area, including a boxing match for the heavyweight championship, would be very hesitant to appear there if it was confirmed that other athletes were detained.

Obviously, only those within the company know the full story, but this is just my two cents on the situation, I would guess that Vince’s decision to cut the live feed to the local audience because of the money situation created a conflict with government officials because it ruins part of the illusion the Saudi regime paid for with this event. As a result, the Saudi government delayed the plan to cause as much inconvenience as possible for the company because of the scheduled live Smackdown on Friday.

Still, the Saudi debacle had a costly effect on the organization, as the stock price tumbled 15% after the previously mentioned conference call. Among the reasons for the drop was lower WWE network subscriptions, live event attendance, and the lack of a TV deal secured for Saudi Arabia. It goes without saying that even with the dip in numbers for stockholders that it would probably be a wise decision for McMahon to conclude his deal with the country. However, it was announced just a few days ago that the Saudi deal will continue through 2027. At this point, if something goes wrong on any of these trips then WWE brass will look foolish because this latest incident could be an indication of some of the Saudi government’s last than ethical business practices. Keep in mind, the entire point of this contract with all the baggage that goes along with it, including the criticism and the task to shoehorn major names onto the show, is because of the massive payday, but management already had a dispute about money so is all of this really worth it?

While it’s doubtful that any WWE staff would be in possible danger at these stadium shows, it must be noted that it could theoretically be a possibility. Remember, the entire crew is in a foreign country and if nothing else, this latest situation shows that if Mohammad Bin Salman doesn’t want a plane to leave then it won’t depart to the United States. I truly hope that nothing harmful happens to any of the WWE staff in Saudi Arabia, but it’s still a very concerning situation. It will be interesting to see how many WWE performers actually agree to return to the country after this incident.

The bottom line is, WWE brass knew the reputation of the Bin Salman prior to their shows overseas and perhaps the announcement for shows through 2027 was simply a way to maintain the stock price, but I would still say that it would be a wise decision for the company to avoid a return to Saudi Arabia. It’s very possible that the incident last week should be used a precautionary tale, but the money is still the top priority for the company.

You reap what you sow

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta