A Young Connecticut Yankee in King Saud’s Court

Yaz Jung looks at the transformative power of cultural diplomacy at times of political and military upheaval

WWE in King Abdullah Stadium, Jeddah

Vince McMahon’s Connecticut-based World Wrestling Entertainment has proven once again, the inescapable power of culture at times of political unrest. During sustained disquiet across the Middle East, WWE has produced a celebration of music, sports and entertainment that has surpassed politics, at the very heart of a cultural discourse unseen by many and understood by few.

For months, some of the world’s most viewed media sites have repeatedly questioned the decision to go ahead with a series of shows that were contracted over a year ago, as part of a reported ten-year deal worth nearly $500m dollars with the Saudi General Sports Authority. Since then, numerous podcasts and editorials have replicated each other in what has become the echo-chamber of popular culture, decrying the power of the almighty dollar and ‘Saudi money’ — divorced from any real understanding of the wider implications.

Insisting that the WWE should have somehow breached its contract with the GSA or attempted to variate its terms by mutual consent, is an injudicious reaction which carelessly assumes a moral superiority that would not be countenanced if the roles were somehow reversed.

Were a First World industrialised economy deemed to have acted equally unjustifiably, it is difficult to imagine those same voices calling for a ban on a previously scheduled all-ages live-entertainment show as some kind of protest or collective punishment affecting ordinary citizens.

Simply put, the political leadership of a country does not represent an entire people, and an ill-conceived cultural embargo does nothing to foster international relations, especially as such expressionless boycotts can often rebound. During WWE’s second such Saudi spectacular, Crown Jewel, Bloomberg’s Vivian Nereim reported how Amazon is facing an arduous public backlash in the Kingdom, due to sharing its ownership with the Washington Post — which some ordinary Saudi’s now appear to regard as biased in its reporting.

The resultant harm from such actions dislocates all sides away from cultural understanding, a Glasnost which can save lives. Just ask Japanese Senator Antonio Inoki. In 1990, he held a Professional Wrestling event in Baghdad just prior to the Gulf War, which saw the release of 41 Japanese hostages after the famed martial-artist negotiated directly with Saddam Hussein — a process which appeared to influence the Dictator’s subsequent decision to release over 5,000 international detainees the following day.

In 1995, Inoki partnered with billionaire CNN founder Ted Turner and the late Muhammad Ali, to headline Collision in Korea before 150,000 screaming fans in Pyongyang. 2012 saw The Independent report how Senator Inoki successfully held similar events across countries such as Pakistan. In 1989, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe headlined the Moscow Music Peace Festival in the heart of the Soviet Union, as the first ever rock concert held at Lenin Stadium. More recently, The Rolling Stones, Iron Maiden, Metallica and others have all broken new ground in China to rapturous response whilst making stylistic concessions in respect of the local government.

A cultural exchange, no matter how seemingly insignificant, facilitates sometimes years of small steps to enable attitudes on both sides to change — though perhaps too late for some of the brave souls that played the England vs. Germany footballing truce along the Western Front in Christmas 1914 — in the first year of a devastating conflict the world commemorates as ended a century ago.

Sports Entertainment is a language that is almost universally understood — at least on its surface. The simple theatre appeals to all ages and creeds irrespective of socio-economic or geo-political background. It is appreciated by both those with an understanding of Vaudeville, to veterans and children with learning difficulties or illness. One third-generation Christian Baseball Coach, Syracuse Sports Hall-of-Famer Tom Dotterer who innocently lost his right-eye in a liquor store robbery a few years ago, defiantly maintained the worst thing that had happened to him that week, was to see his favourite wrestler CM Punk throw the World Championship to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. If only WWE’s creative team demonstrated even half as much bravery and passion instead of their often vapid storytelling. Yet time-after-time, Vince McMahon’s vision of a colourful troupe of performers who bring smiles to people’s faces has resonated in almost every corner of the globe. WWE’s family-friendly programming reaches over 180 countries in 22 languages and has emerged as a unique form of entertainment; whose wide-eyed presentation ensures it is enjoyed by millions.

What WWE has accomplished with it’s Saudi Arabian events, is lost on those determined to criticise the corporation for respecting the cultural mores of its markets. Just as McDonald’s adapts its menu depending on the region served, WWE adjusts their product and line-up of performers in accordance with local custom. Much has been made of the fact that women have yet to compete in-ring at the Saudi shows — even on BBC Radio — but it does not fall to the company to determine the societal values of the Middle East, just as Ronald McDonald cannot shove beef and bacon down the throats of certain religious consumers.

Last year, WWE took a 65-year old man embroiled for years in an internationally reported sex and racism scandal, and put him in front of a conservative audience of over 25,000 at King Saud stadium in Riyadh. The reaction was deafening. Arab’s erupted in joy at the familiar refrain of Rick Derringer’s “I Am a Real American” illuminating the enduring silhouette of Hulk Hogan, in a pyrotechnic display of staggering scale. This year, in Jeddah, women and children looked on as the loudest cheers were for Texas native Mark Callaway, whom has portrayed a godless, tattooed, reaper-like dead-man for the past 30 years called “The Undertaker”. Who would have thought such images were possible in a society once perceived as so closed?

Yet that is the victory of Vince McMahon. During a time of heightened political and military tension, McMahon, a proud Connecticut Yankee, has managed to come to the royal court of Al-Saud, to found a heartfelt celebration of Americana at the epicenter of the Arab world — all without a shot being fired. As the Kingdom faces severe international pressure, it is a remarkable achievement of cultural diplomacy to which tone-deaf commentator’s remain wilfully colour-blind.

Such vacant and misleading observations also do little to recognise the inimitable contribution of sportscaster Renee Young. Starting her career with The Score television network in Canada, Young has travelled to Riyadh and Jeddah to help originate a unique role for women across the genre — broadcasting with immaculate poise and delivery alongside former CBS reporter Michael Cole. Wishing to empower women in other parts of the world is one thing, but prior to Young’s appointment to commentary in 2018, not even WWE featured a regular female anchor on their own primetime programming.

Respecting the beliefs of others does not mean agreeing with them, nor does it mean to tar an entire nation with the same brush. Yet, with this latest in an expected decade-long series of events, WWE and Saudi Sports Authority Chairman Turki Al-Sheikh have demonstrated how culture triumphs over politics, how entertainment can help defeat prejudice, and how people from all walks of life can work together to overcome mistrust, and that, really is, the Crown Jewel.