Later today World Wrestling Entertainment will host a historic event: 50 men will enter the ring as part of the Greatest Royal Rumble, no less than seven championships will be on the line, and it will be the first time WWE will broadcast live from Saudi Arabia.
The pay-per-view, which will be aired on Sky Sports Box Office and the WWE Network, will feature a star-studded card worthy of WrestleMania, but no female wrestlers. Women are allowed attend the show at King Abdullah International Stadium in Jeddah, but only if they are accompanied by men.
The most disappointing aspect of this is that WWE have been attempting to improve their women's division over the past two years, to give them greater parity to their male counterparts through the Women's Evolution. Of course, WWE are no strangers to talking out of both sides of their mouth.
Why Are WWE Going To Saudi Arabia?
The event is part of a problematic 10-year, strategic multi-platform partnership that the pro-wrestling company has struck up with the country's General Sports Authority. The Greatest Royal Rumble is presumably only the first of many such visits to the country.
The reason is simple: money.
WWE want it; Saudi Arabia have plenty of it.
It's not clear exactly how much Vince McMahon's corporation are receiving, although one tabloid estimated they would make at a minimum $50 million for just walking through the door, increasing to $100 million through PPV and merchandise sales. That sounds a bit outlandish, but you can be certain that they're not doing it for free.
But why are the powers-that-be on the Arabian peninsula willing to shell out quite so much money for a wrestling show?
It is all a part of Saudi Vision 2030, a social and economic reform program. It's a wide-ranging program, but it boils down to this: the Saudis want to decrease their dependency on oil and give off the impression that they are a vibrant and modern country. Partnerships with companies like the WWE help to achieve that.
Unfortunately, that requires the WWE to not have any of their female performers on this particular show. Triple H, who has seamlessly moved from in-ring action to the boardroom in recent years, defended the decision to go to Saudi Arabia in an interview with the Independent, saying “You can’t dictate to a country or a religion about how they handle things.”
You can, however, choose not to wrestle in said country when their values don't match yours.
HHH made mention of his hopes that ongoing discussions to have future events including women will be a catalyst for real change in the middle-eastern peninsula. But would it not make a bigger impact to those in charge by turning down this opportunity? Tell them that this is a deal breaker, and no event will take place in the country without it.
At the same time, slowly but surely changes are occurring in Saudi Arabia. For the first time ever in 2015, women were elected to local councils as Saudi Arabia became the world's last country to give women the vote. And by June of this year, women will be allowed to drive as well.
As to whether these piecemeal changes are anything other than an attempt at good public relations, time will tell.
WWE itself doesn't have the most stellar reputation for promoting their female athletes. The Attitude Era of the late nineties and early noughties was awash with sexism and misogyny.
At the Royal Rumble in 2000, HHH defended his World Title in an incredible Street Fight match against Cactus Jack for the WWF Title on one of the best PPVs of the last 30 years. Alas, there was no all-female match on that night’s card. Chyna competed that night in a mixed gender match but she was, at the time, the exception that proves the rule. There was, however, a bikini contest featuring various women on the roster that ended in a brawl. That was about as much in-ring action as they saw that night.
Two years earlier at the same PPV, women got even less airtime. The sole female appearance was given to Sunny, as a special guest referee for a “midget wrestling six-man tag match”. It wasn’t uncommon to hear chants of “slut” being aimed at the wrestlers of the women’s division.
When HHH was in his prime, just less than twenty years ago, it's possible that nobody would have noticed if you staged an event like this with no women on the card.
The point is, women’s wrestling has only been taken seriously by the WWE when it has mattered to their pockets. Fans wanted more competitive matches and serious storylines featuring women wrestlers. For years, decades even, women were trotted out for sex appeal, but the McMahons were trying to cater to an audience that was long gone by the time the Women's Evolution finally made its way to our screens. It made financial sense to give women more of the spotlight.
As a result, there have been a number of overdue changes to the programming, giving female wrestlers their due and putting them to the forefront of the product. The first women’s Money In The Bank match took place last year. This year it was the first ever women’s Royal Rumble match. This past winter saw the first-ever WWE women’s match held in the Middle East at a show in Abu Dhabi when Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks faced off.
These are all positive things, making WWE all the better for it and they have been widely commended for doing so.
But the question persists: whats the driving factor behind this? The cultural change that HHH speaks of, or money?
Greatest Royal Rumble will be aired today, at 5 pm Irish time.