Oh! The tale to be told.
A time of great fortune, such wealth prior could only be dreamed. Of great power bestowed by princes and kings. Not for one’s self, nay, but for influencing the world! An era where the greatest wrestling promotion in America took a deal to put on multiple sporting events for billions of dollars in a Kingdom’s efforts to wash over horrific human rights violations.
Oh! The plentiful bounty.
Such joyous pleasantry. For I do not mean to offend, instead remind you of a story as old as time. Propaganda’s only virile because it works.
WWE is influencing the world! THREE women’s matches on a show!
We’re still talking propaganda one and the same. Smarter in its approach than the partnership’s previous efforts, but at its core still the same idea. I’m not crying foul or cheer, but being careful not to convince that’s not what’s happening here.
The influences of representation on display, but I can’t lie and say that women suddenly have freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia. Those same women campaigning for constitutional reform have found themselves arrested for years without trial. See Saudi princess Basma bint Saud Al Saud who was arrested in March 2019 and released just one month ago… with no sign of neither charge nor trial.
Going by multiple human rights reports (HRW, Amnesty International, UN OHCHR) that genuine change isn’t really sweeping through when it comes to freedom of expression and especially so in regards to women. In fact regressing in 2020 with additions to laws on social media use after the government’s strong response to COVID-19. An addition to their Anti-Cyber Crime Law that was already being invoked in multiple trials involving social media posts as evidence (trials that the UN’s 2019 report had major concerns over the legitimacy of).
To their credit the Kingdom was quick on the pulse and locked down their borders FAST. To no surprise upsetting some folk who took to social media and BAM! came the hammer. Being added to the Anti-Cyber Crime Law meant that act could land you up to 5 years in jail or a hefty $800,000 equivalent maximum fine.
It’s difficult to perceive as someone living in a free speaking nation, but the arrests, confinement and torture of these people are very real. One of the women instrumental in the campaign for the women’s right to drive, Loujain al-Hathloul, was sentenced to 5 years in prison in December 2020.
The same law change used to promote how progressive the nation was during the Greatest Royal Rumble in 2018. A whole propaganda video produced to air on WWE programming obviously omitted that Loujain al-Hathloul had been arrested just a week before the law came in.
It’s all okay though because the billboard for a WWE show features two female stars.
One hand waving a shining beacon of Middle-Eastern Western progress, as the other arrests and tortures the very people campaigning for those same ideals. I’m sure WWE featuring women on their show ends this whole complex conversation in a ray of positivity though.
I’m not going to sit and fault a major American business for taking one billion dollars (let’s not divulge into grand pros and cons of capitalism here), but that doesn’t mean they’re individually immune to critique.
One billion dollars directly paid by a government to promote their progressiveness for 10 years. That’s it. The Greatest Royal Rumble in 2018 was almost offensively inept in the first attempt at this. Now much improved in the delivery to a much higher degree of success, but that doesn’t change the purpose of the deal.
The shows themselves have started to appease Western audiences much more than initial outings, no longer a weird three week bubble where you could just stop watching and tune back in once it was done. Two and a half years in and the attending KSA audience now gets an Elimination Chamber event built as an integral part of the Road to WrestleMania.
The quality of the propaganda has improved immensely, but it’s still propaganda.
An important point is that WWE were already running shows in Saudi Arabia years before this deal and were unsurprisingly met with very little criticism. That’s because there’s a major difference between the funding of a show coming from the paying public, to the government of the Kingdom looking to advertise a perception of progress.
Let me repeat, there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting on a show in Saudi Arabia. We just shouldn’t kid that we’re not watching propaganda events. Because we are. It’s both possible to agree that they’re entertaining events in the realms of watchable content, but also not to lie to ourselves about what we’re watching.
WWE get to promote the fact women are featured more than ever on their shows in Saudi Arabia, whilst KSA themselves get footage of little girls watching on and dreaming.
I’m not going to sit here and question the sanity of any one choice a fan makes to watch these shows or not, propaganda isn’t inherently void of artistic merit. You may even be fatiguing of these words, the never ending conversation around the morality of this deal. But that’s entirely the point, wearing down and normalising things a market was previously in uproar about.
This deal is not normal and an uproar was an entirely understandable reaction. I will continue to bang that drum. As long as you’re fully aware of what you’re watching when you tune in to these shows then have at it.
There is progress, but it’s a balancing act under an oppressive regime.
Sonya Deville being on the card doesn’t make Saudi Arabia a pro-LGBTQ+ country. A positive note added to that beacon of flame, intended to burn so bright you don’t see what’s behind it.
1a) Saudi Princess Basmah Bint Saud Freed After Nearly 3 Years In Jail – https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/saudi-princess-basmah-bint-saud-freed-after-nearly-3-years-in-jail/articleshow/88794070.cms?from=mdr
1b) Basmah bint Saud: Saudi princess released from jail after almost three years – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-59923898
2) Amnesty International Report Saudi Arabia 2020 – https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/middle-east-and-north-africa/saudi-arabia/report-saudi-arabia/
3) United Nations Human Rights Office Of The High Commissioner Universal Periodic Review – Saudi Arabia, 29th April 2019 – https://lib.ohchr.org/HRBodies/UPR/Documents/Session31/SA/letterSaudiArabia_EN.pdf
4) Human Rights Watch Saudi Arabia Events of 2020 – https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/saudi-arabia
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