Saudi Arabia

John Oliver slams WWE over Saudi Arabia show on ‘Last Week Tonight’ amid Jamal Khashoggi fallout

Comedian says pro wrestling company is giving Saudi government ‘wall-to-wall propaganda’, with calls for upcoming Crown Jewel event in Riyadh to be cancelled

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 7:15pm

As condemnation of Saudi Arabia escalates following the disappearance and suspected murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, comedian John Oliver has hit out at professional wrestling giants WWE for its close relationship with the nation.

Oliver, the host of Last Week Tonight on US network HBO, used Sunday night’s programme to criticise the Saudi government, which denies it had anything to do with the situation surrounding Khashoggi, a dissident and critic who was last seen walking into the Saudi Arabia embassy in Turkey.

The Turkish government has told US officials it has audio and video recordings proving Khashoggi was murdered by a Saudi security team on October 2, with pressure from the West intensifying to investigate what happened.

Oliver opened his segment on Saudi Arabia by showing an edited reel of clips from WWE’s “Greatest Royal Rumble” show from Jeddah in April, which featured WWE commentators praising “this vibrant, progressive city”.

“MBS’ PR push isn’t just towards attracting businesses. It’s also towards changing the world’s perception of Saudi Arabia. To that end, he struck a 10-year deal with one of the most popular and most American franchises there is – World Wresting Entertainment, or WWE,” Oliver said.

“They held their first of many events there back in April, and audiences around the world were treated to wall-to-wall propaganda about the new Saudi Arabia, including video showing women happily driving, men dancing and tourist destination beauty shots as well as constant excited compliments throughout the broadcast.”

A clip of WWE star John Cena thanking the Saudi government was then shown. “I want to send a genuine thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said Cena, a 14-time world champion who is the company’s biggest mainstream star having crossed over into Hollywood.

Oliver then said: “Wow. It seems the WWE is as overtly pro-Saudi Arabia as it is latently homoerotic, which is to say, intensely.”

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WWE signed a 10-year deal with the Saudi General Sports Authority earlier this year, and is set to return for their second show, “Crown Jewel”, on November 2 at the King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh.

Amid increasing criticism and calls for the show to be cancelled, WWE released a statement last week saying it is “monitoring the situation” with regards to Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi.

“As for the WWE, while they say they are monitoring the situation, their gigantic Crown Jewel event is still scheduled for November, meaning John Cena could well be back there doing this, which I guess in this context means you don’t see these human rights abuses right here,” said Oliver while he waved his hand in front of his face, mocking Cena’s trademark pose and “You can’t see me” catchphrase.

WWE reportedly earned around US$50 million for the April show in Jeddah, the kind of money which has helped entice WWE legend Shawn Michaels out of retirement for another match at Crown Jewel next month.

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The Saudi government does impose restrictions on WWE, however, with no female wrestlers allowed to perform at the events. Saudi women can only attend the shows if they are accompanied by a man, and must sit in the “family” areas, away from male-only sections.

WWE is hosting its first all-female pay-per-view event, “Evolution”, four days before Crown Jewel.

Male wrestler Sami Zayn, a Canadian of Syrian descent, was also kept off the last “Greatest Royal Rumble” show in April.

“WWE is committed to embracing individuals from all backgrounds while respecting local customs and cultural differences around the world,” the company said in a statement regarding Zayn.

Saudis still denying journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder despite reports he recorded torture and death

The deal with WWE is part of a drive by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who claims to be a reformer, to change Saudi Arabia’s global image through sporting events.

The Saudi general sports authority has also signed a multi-year contract with all electric racing series Formula E, which will kick off its new season in Riyadh in December.

Numerous US Senators have now called on WWE to rethink their relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“I would hope that WWE will recognise on its own a conscience and conviction, if there is proof Saudi officials approved and ordered this kind of killing,” Richard Blumenthal, senator for the state of Connecticut where WWE’s Stamford offices are based, told WNBC 880 radio’s Steve Scott.

“I would lean first on the United States government to do its duty so that it can lead private interests like WWE and the first place to look is to the United States of America.”

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Connecticut senator Chris Murphy also weighed in, telling the Independent Journal Review: “I’d hope that they [WWE] would be rethinking their relationship with the kingdom especially with respect to events coming up in the next weeks like [Crown Jewel].”

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham told “there should be a pause” in WWE’s business relationship with Saudi Arabia, while Delaware senator Chris Coons said the company should “be taking a hard look” at the relationship.

Perhaps complicating matters is that WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon’s wife, Linda McMachon, is part of US president Donald Trump’s cabinet.

New Jersey senator Bob Menendez told IJR: “Private enterprise is private enterprise, different than a governmental entity, but because [Linda McMahon] is part of the president’s cabinet, it falls into the grey area where the administration really should give it some thought and maybe even prevail upon them not doing it.”

When asked about the Khashoggi situation last week, and the possibility of punishing Saudi Arabia Trump said: “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country ... they are spending US$110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country.”