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WWE returns to a Saudi Arabia at risk of ‘imminent attack’

Karim Zidan delves into the WWE’s latest foray to Saudi Arabia despite human rights concerns and threats of an “imminent attack” from Iran.

Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

“I promise that on Nov. 5 in Saudi Arabia, I will deliver a performance unlike anything you have ever seen before.”

These were the words uttered by Logan Paul during a World Wrestling Entertainment press conference last month in Las Vegas, Nevada. The press event, which also featured reigning WWE champion Roman Reigns and COO Paul Levesque (aka Triple H), saw the company announce its latest foray to Saudi Arabia, which is scheduled to take place on Nov. 5 in Riyadh.

Dubbed “WWE Crown Jewel,” the premium live event will feature Reigns defend his undisputed WWE universal championship in the main event against the social media sensation. Reigns is the longest-reigning WWE universal champion in history, while Paul has nearly 80 million combined social media followers across Instagram, Twitter and his various YouTube channels.

While this week’s event will mark the WWE’s eighth live event in the kingdom dating back to April 2018, their latest trip comes in the wake of renewed human rights concerns and intelligence reports warning of an “imminent attack” from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

DOUNIAMAG-WRESTLING-SAUDI-CROWN JEWEL Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia has shared intelligence with the U.S. “warning of an imminent attack from Iran on targets in the kingdom.” Though details regarding the Saudi intelligence were not provided, the U.S. and various neighboring states have “raised the level of alert for their military forces.”

One of the officials who confirmed the intelligence sharing to the Wall Street Journal described it as a credible threat of an attack “soon or within 48 hours”.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanani, responded to the report on Wednesday by calling it “baseless” and aimed at tarnishing Tehran’s relations with its neighbours.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the establishment and improvement of stability and security in the region to be possible through constructive engagement with neighbours and will pursue it seriously,” he said.

Iran is Saudi Arabia’s primary regional rival. The kingdom severed official diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shiite cleric. Houthi rebels backed by Iran have also attacked oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent years, raising concerns that energy infrastructure could be a target for any Iranian provocations in the region.

Despite the heightened state of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the WWE appears to be going ahead with its latest offering to the kingdom on Nov. 5.

According to renowned journalist Dave Meltzer, the WWE was currently “monitoring the situation” in Saudi Arabia. “All plans are for the show at this moment but you can’t control the real world,” Meltzer wrote on Twitter.

This would not be the first time that a major event has gone ahead in Saudi Arabia despite the spectre of an imminent attack. In March 2022, the Formula 1 Jeddah Grand Prix went ahead as scheduled despite Houthi rebels attacking an oil depot in the city prior to the event. The missile and drone attacks struck Saudi Aramco oil facility in Jeddah just miles from the Formula 1 venue. F1 drivers continued to practice Friday night even as the fire raged on and smoke billowed in the distance.

SAUDI-YEMEN-CONFLICT Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has spent billions on high-profile international sports and entertainment events. The strategic investment is part of the kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ masterplan that aims to reduce Saudi’s economic dependence on oil but it also serves to distract from ongoing human rights abuses committed by the kingdom with impunity, as well its ongoing war in Yemen that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis among the worst in the world.

The kingdom’s sports portfolio includes a Formula One Grand Prix, the Saudi Cup horse race, several boxing showdowns, massive investments in esports and gaming, the Newcastle United football club, and the LIV professional golf tour financed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF).

As for Crown Jewel, the events are part of a lucrative 10-year partnership with the kingdom whereby the WWE earns approximately $50 million for each event held in Saudi Arabia. The purpose behind the WWE Crown Jewel events, much like Saudi Arabia’s other sports and entertainment investments, is to attract attention to the kingdom and present it as a reformed nation. This explains the decision to place Logan Paul in the headlining spot at the upcoming show, as the controversial figure is among the most popular social media stars in the world.

This facade of progress was particularly evident when the WWE began holding events with female talent, who had previously been unable to perform in Saudi Arabia until 2019. While the organization presented the change as evidence of the kingdom’s reforms, Saudi Arabia has continued to repress women’s rights and target women’s rights activists and movements.

“WWE’s first-ever women’s match taking place in Riyadh is a prime example how the Saudi Arabian authorities are using elite sports to try to ‘sportswash’ their dire human rights record and image internationally,” Dana Ahmed, Saudi Arabia researcher at Amnesty, told Newsweek in 2019.

WRESTLING-SAUDI-CROWN JEWEL Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

In August 2022, Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi student at Leeds University, was given a 34-year prison sentence for using Twitter to follow and retweet dissidents and activists. Al-Shehab is a mother of two young children and was not known as a vocal activist inside the kingdom. She had about 2000 followers on Twitter and was initially expected to serve a three-year sentence. However, an appeals court Monday imposed a sentence of 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban.

Later that same month, another Saudi woman was handed a 45-year prison sentence for “using the internet to tear the social fabric” and “violating public order by using social media.” The draconian sentencing emphasizes the kingdom’s continued oppression of female dissidents despite claims of reform and progress.

Despite the various issues plaguing the world’s most prominent wrestling organization’s latest event in Saudi Arabia, it appears that nothing will stand in the way of the WWE’s pursuit of profit.

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