Next Sunday (2/24), THE DOC SAYS podcast returns to @RadioLOP !
Well, I couldn't stay away, but my return means a fresh take on the pro wrestling podcast and a show that promises to enhance your fandom with fun ideas, variety in topics, and unique presentation.
— Chad Matthews (@TheDocLOP) February 13, 2019
Doc’s Note – The King of the Columnists Tournament is currently in its Quarterfinal Round in our LOP Columns Forum, started by Mr. Tito back in the early 2000s and the starting point for your favorite LOP columnists for much of the past twenty years. I’m judging this competition and two of the entries this week really stood out to me as thought-provoking pieces, so I thought I’d share them with you. Below you will find the first one, written by a talented newcomer I expect will be one of our main columnists before too long, R-Prof. Also, as noted above, my podcast, The Doc Says, is coming back this Sunday; I needed an extended break, but I have some new ideas to break the monotony of the popular modern wrestling podcast format, so please check it out this weekend!
On October 2, 2018, Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to request papers he needed to marry his fiancée. Within minutes, a team of Saudi agents strangled him to death and, in a gruesome scene that could have been ordered by the likes of Ramsay Bolton, dismembered his body with a bone saw.
Khashoggi had been writing columns critical of the Saudi regime since fleeing the kingdom in 2017, and quickly earned the ire of the 32-year old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman (known by his initials, MBS). The Crown Prince was in the midst of consolidating power, after orchestrating the ouster of a relative so that he could be next in line for the throne. MBS planned to offer a new image of generational change in Saudi Arabia, one based on promoting women’s rights and expanding the country’s tourism and entertainment industries. But he was also seeking ways to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, or to find some method to assassinate the journalist.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi prompted outrage across the Middle East, the United States, and around the world. In subsequent weeks, global attention focused more intently on the war Saudi Arabia was waging against Iranian-backed insurgents for control of Yemen, fueling what the United Nations called the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis (to be clear, this is a war where there are no good guys). The harshest criticism of Saudi Arabia’s tactics centered on airstrikes that killed thousands of civilians at weddings, funerals, and on school buses, aided as they were by American-supplied weaponry. Many multinational corporations announced that they were cutting ties with Saudi Arabia, or at least pulling out of Saudi business forums. Some even took to referring to MBS as “Mr. Bone Saw.”
Nevertheless, the WWE held the Crown Jewel pay-per-view in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 2, just one month after Khashoggi’s violent death.
Crown Jewel was part of a 10-year strategic partnership formed between WWE and Saudi Arabia in support of “Vision 2030,” the centerpiece of MBS’s plans to revitalize the Saudi economy and promote a friendlier face abroad. WWE had already held the Greatest Royal Rumble in April, and reports circulated that paydays for WWE performers at these Saudi events were rivaling (perhaps even surpassing) those of WrestleMania. This all seemed to be confirmed when Shawn Michaels was coerced out of retirement for Crown Jewel, as WWE fans were treated to the spectacle of HBK, Triple H, Undertaker, and Kane, all clumsy and mostly bald, flopping around the ring like the wrestling version of Grumpier Old Men.
WWE came under intense scrutiny for kowtowing to a regime accused of severe human rights abuses and leading a war of attrition in Yemen. Clearly, it appeared, money played the definitive role in WWE’s calculus. In an interview with Sky Sports, Stephanie McMahon referenced Khashoggi’s murder, describing “an incredibly tough decision, given that heinous act,” but claiming it was strictly a business decision to go forward with Crown Jewel.
And so it was. WWE is primarily concerned with what is best for business, and the monetary windfall from the partnership with Saudi Arabia overwhelmed any moral dilemmas that might intercede. The opportunity was simply too lucrative to pass up.
It is not that I think the financial considerations unimportant, quite the contrary. But, there is more than meets the eye to this particular relationship. Upon closer inspection, one finds an elective affinity between Saudi Arabia and WWE, in both cultural and institutional terms. Over the course of multiple decades, Saudi Arabia and WWE have been in ideological alignment, stretching back to the 1980s. Indeed, the reasons for the continuing Saudi-WWE relationship are as much political as they are economic.
The most prominent representations of Middle Eastern characters across WWE’s history have involved Saudi Arabia’s enemies. To wit: since the 1979 Revolution, Iran has been Saudi Arabia’s primary rival in the Middle East, waging a struggle for sectarian dominance that has turned much of the region into their shared battlefield. After 1979, the Iranian regime encouraged all Muslims, especially Saudis, to overthrow their rulers. Concurrently, the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran provided an opportunity for an Iranian heel character to menace the then WWF. The Iron Sheik would assume that role with genuine aplomb.
The Iron Sheik, master of the suplex and the Camel Clutch, unleashed his spectacular villainy on the WWF in 1983. He immediately challenged and defeated Bob Backlund for the Heavyweight Championship, applying the Camel Clutch and causing Backlund’s manager to throw in the towel. Led by “Ayatollah” Freddie Blassie, Iron Sheik lavished praise on his home country and bashed the USA with an infectious accent. The Sheik would eventually lose his title to Hulk Hogan at Madison Square Garden in 1984, when Hogan hit the legdrop and Hulkamania was born. Thousands of miles away, Saudis could share in the glory of the victory over the dastardly Iranian.
In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering the crisis that led to the 1991 Gulf War. The Kuwaiti government fled to their ally Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi King denounced the Iraqi aggressors. Fearing that Saddam Hussein might invade Saudi Arabia next, the Saudis asked the USA to send troops to protect their kingdom. While expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, the USA established military bases in Saudi Arabia.
Against this backdrop, a returning Sgt. Slaughter announced his support for the Iraqi cause. Sgt. Slaughter claimed to admire the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime, compared with a USA that had by then become soft and weak. Slaughter would name as his manager an Iraqi military general, General Adnan, who presented the American turncoat with a pair of wrestling boots that had been sent as a gift from Saddam (the duo would later be joined by the Iron Sheik, this time as Col. Mustafa). Slaughter went on to defeat the Ultimate Warrior for the Heavyweight Championship at the 1991 Royal Rumble, and then main event WrestleMania VII opposite Hulk Hogan after burning a “Hulk Rules” T-shirt on WWF Superstars. Saudi audiences could relish in Hogan’s march toward revenge on the Iraqi-sympathizer, and even watch both the Warrior and Hogan tear the Iraqi flag to shreds, and happily cheer along.
WWE came closest to perpetrating an offensive image to Saudi Arabia with the debut of Muhammad Hassan in 2004. Hassan described himself as an Arab-American suffering from anti-Arab prejudice following 9/11, and later choreographed a terrorist attack on the Undertaker. However, alongside Hassan from the start was his manager Daivari, who translated Hassan’s promos not into Arabic, but Farsi – the language of Iran. Daivari’s invective would not be intelligible to Arabic-speaking audiences, who could make their own assumptions about Hassan: he was Arab, sure, but he was a heel who was firmly aligned with Iran.
At the Greatest Royal Rumble (months before Khashoggi’s death but well after the proxy war was already raging in Yemen), WWE offered a segment designed to stir up further animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Four Saudi wrestling prospects came to the ring to introduce themselves and express hopes of becoming the first WWE superstar to represent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Suddenly, they were interrupted by Ariya and Shawn Daivari, waving the Iranian flag high to a deafening chorus of boos. Ariya asserted that “real athletes like the Daivari brothers come from the strongest nation in the world, Iran!!” Shawn then shouted insults in Farsi, leading the Saudi babyfaces to pounce and clear the heel Iranians from the ring.
During the same event, an incredible piece of political propaganda in support of “Vision 2030” was presented: a voiceover describes the dawning of a societal renaissance in Saudi Arabia. MBS is given full credit for the new era, as the leader allowing the population to make their own decisions in the context of becoming good global citizens. Sports and entertainment are called the main pillars of human happiness. A female government minister is brought to tears as she describes the Crown Prince’s decision to allow women to drive (even though women were prohibited from performing at the event, as was Sami Zayn, carrying the baggage of his Syrian heritage).
Six months later, Crown Jewel was devoid of all references to Saudi Arabia – the announcers do not even mention where the show is taking place. When one watches these events back (which I do not recommend doing), what stands out in Crown Jewel is the absence of the propaganda that was on display at the Greatest Royal Rumble, where the WWE went all in on MBS. The juxtaposition of these two events show how willing the WWE was to shill for the Crown Prince. Tragically, it took the horrific murder of a columnist to reveal this fact.
I imagine future shows will be equally bereft of such blatant propaganda. What will remain, however, are the sharp similarities in the way these two entities are structured; there is profound agreement between Saudi Arabia and WWE on how power should be exercised. Indeed, when Saudi Arabia and WWE encounter one another, they recognize what they see.
On the one hand, we have a Kingdom. It claims possession of a glorious history, though it was created by swallowing up surrounding territories and establishing one large conglomerate. Its innate sense of insecurity leads it to lash out at challengers and competitors. It is governed as a monarchy, with power handed down from kings to designated princes. Next in line for the throne is the Crown Prince, who prefers to go by three initials rather than his full name. He has cultivated a reputation as a reformer, in large part by supporting a women’s revolution of sorts. He is a force behind new avenues of entertainment, and would like us to believe that he will be a good steward of the realm while correcting the abuses of the old King, who is slowly dying off. But those who have watched his career closely know he has a history of crushing potential rivals; in truth, he has demonstrated abundant cruelty on his path to power. It is not that we shouldn’t applaud the spirit of reform he espouses, but we must remain deeply skeptical. The real issue is the structure of authority in the Kingdom: when the old King dies, the Crown Prince will inherit power on an absolute basis. No matter how many promises are made, this is a Crown Prince who is staring at decades of unchecked personal power. He has behaved ruthlessly in the past, and there will be nothing to prevent him from doing so in the future. When power is exercised absolutely, Lord Acton eternally reminds us, it corrupts absolutely.
On the other hand, we have Saudi Arabia…