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History of WWE in Saudi Arabia: Stunt Bookings, Train-wreck Matches and now Premium Live Events

history of wwe in saudi arabia

The Elimination Chamber will take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Saturday. This is the first show from Saudi Arabia that will be part of the “regular” rotation of what WWE is now calling “Premium Live Events.” Past shows were called SuperShowdown, Greatest Royal Rumble and Crown Jewel. They were in addition to the usual slate of big shows, rather than being one itself. It’s a subtle departure for the company in its approach which has developed over the past year.

WWE’s current deal with Saudi Arabia began in 2018. Under the current terms, two shows each year will take place there until 2027. It’s proven to be one of the company’s most controversial business moves. It “won” the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic award two years running. That’s something no other tactic has managed to accomplish. It took firing people during a global pandemic to knock it off its perch.

Creatively, WWE has tried different approaches. The early shows included gimmick matches or promotions, along with stunt booking, to sometimes disastrous results. Later, these shows were presented more as house shows with a big name or two from the past added. More recently, they’ve been closer to primary storyline shows.

Gimmicks, Trainwrecks and Legends

The deal began with the Greatest Royal Rumble on Apr. 27, 2018. This was a gimmick match that expanded the Royal Rumble format to 50 wrestlers. The idea was to give the show the feel of a major event by giving the crowd something it had not seen before. The 50-man Rumble was won by Braun Strowman, who received a trophy for the win.

The show also set a precedent of bringing back stars of the past for these events. WWE looked to book people the General Authority for Entertainment (the government-run department that made the deal with WWE) saw as big stars. Older and retired workers were offered huge money to come back and work the shows.

HHH and Undertaker returned to the ring for the Greatest Royal Rumble. Undertaker defeated Rusev in a Casket Match while HHH put over John Cena.

John Oliver lampooned WWE and the entire arrangement on his show, Last Week Tonight, following the event. The company plowed ahead despite mainstream bad publicity:

HHH and Undertaker were back later that year, although both probably wish they hadn’t been. On Nov. 2, 2018, the first edition of Crown Jewel took place. This show was even more controversial than the first since it came only a month after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A tag team match between two teams of legends was booked. HHH and Shawn Michaels took on Undertaker and Kane in a match that simply crashed and burned. Kane’s mask (and fake hair) came off by accident. Moves were botched. It was an unmitigated disaster. The match “won” the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Worst Match of the Year award.

They also held a “World Cup” single-elimination tournament won by Shane McMahon, despite him not actually being in the tournament until the finals. Don’t ask. Thankfully, the whole thing was forgotten about not long after returning to the United States.

To top off the trifecta, along with the Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic and Worst Match award, the show itself was named Worst Major Wrestling Show.

Not one to learn from mistakes, WWE came back June 7 for another show. The did a 51-man Battle Royal this time, with Mansoor (who is from Saudi Arabia) getting the victory. That win did not carry over into any kind of push going forward and was done just for the local crowd.

The Rumble was not the talking point coming out of Super Showdown, anyway. Goldberg faced Undertaker in a match that is remembered as a dark moment in each man’s career. Goldberg suffered a concussion early in the match and it never really came together. Both men were injured and more moves were botched. Undertaker spoke of it during the “Last Ride” documentary made about the twilight of his career:

This show only did the double when it came to dubious awards. WWE repeated with the Worst Major Wrestling Show award and the Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic. Only Seth Rollins versus The Fiend in a Hell in a Cell Match kept it from taking three Worst categories.

The Journey Home from Hell

The moniker of “Plane Ride from Hell” is already taken, but this show resulted in another epic travel misadventure. The stunt booking was in high gear for Crown Jewel on Oct. 21, 2019. After almost doing permanent damage to Goldberg, Undertaker, HHH and Michaels, they began booking huge names from other combat sports. Heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury made an attempt at pro wrestling, defeating Strowman by countout. Lesnar defeated fellow UFC alum Cain Velasquez in a quick match as well.

This show also had a women’s match for the first time. Natalya defeated Lacey Evans to become the answer to that trivia question. The match didn’t mean much in any storyline, and the workers were forced to wear outfits that covered their entire body, plus T-shirts. This flies in the face of everything WWE has said about being promoting equality and being progressive, of course. But it didn’t stop WWE from proclaiming the match historic and claiming that they broke barriers. They didn’t, by the way. Female circus performers and dancers had performed there before this match anyway.

Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair also came back, although they were kept out of the ring. They were there to be seen by the crowd and represent a team of current wrestlers in a six-man tag team match.

Despite inexperienced people in key matches, this show was received a little better than the others from Saudi Arabia. The real controversy came after the final bell.

The plane set to take the wrestlers and crew home was delayed in a dispute with the Saudi government. Reports in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter stated there was a dispute regarding payment. After that, the plane was not allowed to leave. WWE hasn’t said much about it at all, mostly sticking to the “mechanical issue” narrative. Vince McMahon and the people most important to him (which included Kevin Dunne, Lesnar, Hogan, Flair and Fury) booked a charter flight and left the rest behind. WWE had to scramble to put together a crew for the November 1st episode of SmackDown due to these delays.

Things cooled off after that. The deal was expanded, and they were back on Feb. 27 2020. Both Goldberg and Undertaker returned without incident. Goldberg returned to beat The Fiend for the Universal title so he could transfer it to Strowman at the upcoming WrestleMania. Undertaker returned mostly to get the bad taste out of his mouth from the Goldberg match. He won something called the Tuwaiq Trophy in a gauntlet match. The trophy was barely mentioned at all after that.

In fact, with the exception of the title change, this one felt more like a house show. It was also the only show in Saudi Arabia that year due to the pandemic.

Premium Live Event

They returned in Oct. 2021 with Crown Jewel. This was the only “big show” of the month. While all of these Saudi Arabia shows were broadcast live on WWE Network or Peacock, this was the first that took the place of a major monthly show. It was also the best event yet in the country. Edge defeated Rollins in an excellent Hell in a Cell Match, while Lesnar and Reigns had another clash in the main event.

This concept for the Saudi Arabia shows continues Saturday as the Super ShowDown name has been dropped and they are simply having the traditional February Elimination Chamber show in Jeddah. It’s a strong lineup of matches that point toward WrestleMania, and it does not have a pumped-up house show feel of some other Saudi Arabian cards.

The expanded deal into 2027 ensures fans will continue to see these shows from the middle east. Despite human rights abuses, laws stating homosexual behavior can be punished by death and laws stating women can only attend if accompanied by a man, money talks. When it does, WWE listens, and Saudi Arabian events stay in prominent places on WWE’s calendar.

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