Bigger than Sportswashing: Expert weighs in on how and why Saudi Arabia remains aggressive on sports

More than six years after the Greatest Royal Rumble took place in Jeddah, marking the first major event in a lengthy partnership between WWE and Saudi Arabia, the relationship between the two parties remains strong.

Shortly after an “enhancement” deal was made between Saudi Arabia and UFC – the other side of TKO Group Holdings which also represents WWE on the stock market – General Entertainment Authority Chairman Turki Alalshikh set his sights back on the professional wrestling brand.

He mentioned his intention to sign a new deal with WWE, sweetening an agreement that already guarantees the promotion $100 million per year for a pair of “large-scale events.” Alalshikh stated his hopes of bringing WWE’s biggest shows Wrestlemania and the Royal Rumble to the country, a big step up from the smaller priority presentations that the country currently receives.

The positive, high-hope words from Alalshikh made it clear that the country isn’t done with WWE at all, and that the 10-year agreement they have has proven to be fruitful for both sides thus far.

As Saudi Arabia continues to put money into sports – dumping millions into boxing, MMA, golf, motorsports, football, and more recently tennis – questions around the ethics of working with the country continue to be discussed. What are the country’s intentions with such events, and what are the moral consequences of companies forming such agreements?

What is Saudia Arabia’s intention? An economic perspective

A common opinion is that the country is using high-profile events to help better its image on the global stage, an action often described as “sportswashing.”

There’s a fair amount of reason as to why Saudi Arabia might put a change in their reputation as a top priority. They continue to face scrutiny for human rights abuses, with Amnesty International calling out their discrimination of women, migrant workers, and LGBTQI+ people, along with other forms of discrimination. Many recall the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as another reason why it would make sense that the country cares so much about rehabilitating its image.

Bradley Hope, an expert on Saudi Arabia, has a slightly different idea. While the country is sensitive to its image, the moves they have made in recent years have been more focused on the economically important task of luring visitors and keeping citizens.

“What they’re thinking about is a few different things,” Hope, author of Blood and Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, explained. “They’re trying to make their own population happy. Make Saudi Arabia a place to stay [and] not to leave all the time. Every time you enjoy something you don’t want your population leaving the country to go next door to Dubai or somewhere else, or Europe, or America. The other element is that part of this economic transformation of Saudi Arabia, tourism actually plays an important role. [Mohammed bin Salman] genuinely wants Saudi Arabia to be a tourist destination … They’re building hotels, they’re building event spaces.”

Hope doesn’t like the term “sportswashing,” as he believes it doesn’t properly explain the more specific economic intentions of the country. However, he clarified that the country certainly is prudent of its reputation and that it is a factor as well.

“They don’t think that they have a problem with attacking people for free speech,” Hope said. “But on the other hand, they’re very concerned about their reputation. They don’t want to be seen as a country that is murderous, doesn’t believe in journalism, [and is against] all these things that are internationally accepted as good things. Anything they can do to show that this is a normal place where normal things happen is useful to them. I just don’t think it’s the primary reason they’re doing it.”

Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, has stated in the past that his focus on sports has been financial. Last year he mocked criticisms of sportswashing in an interview with Fox News, saying he will continue to do so if it will “increase my GDP by one percent.”

The man behind the sports push

Hope describes Saudi Arabia as rapidly evolving. If you visit the country and then return six months later, he says a difference will be noticed. These rapid changes have come under the watch of bin Salman, who assumed the role of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017.

Bin Salman, commonly referred to by the acronym MBS, appointed the aforementioned Alalshikh that same year as chairman of the General Sports Authority. Alalshikh has become the face of Saudi Arabia’s sporting events, forming major partnerships and being vocal about his enthusiasm for boxing.

Alalshikh doesn’t come from a background that necessarily makes him an expert in sports and entertainment. In fact, he went to college for security sciences. But his close ties to bin Salman put him in the position he is in currently.

“He and another guy called Prince Bader [Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud] are two people who were very close to MBS before he rose to power,” Hope said. “They knew him when he was just a relatively unknown prince. So they have that deep trust and relationship based on the fact that they kind of came up together … [Alalshikh] doesn’t really have qualifications that suggest he would have this role, other than the fact that he had this really close relationship with MBS. Part of the inner royal court so to speak.”

After agreements have been made for many top sporting leagues and events, including the massive heavyweight boxing bout last weekend between Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury, it seems as if Alalshikh has succeeded in his job of bringing major sporting events to the country. Hope credits this success to Alalshikh’s chaotic personality, which works for a role in entertainment.

“He’s kind of relatable in a way to part of the population because he’s a wild character, the life of the party,” Hope said, remembering a viral clip where Alalshikh destroyed a TV after losing a game of FIFA 20. “I think that’s what makes him a great relationship manager for these celebrities. They like spending time with him. Of course, this guy also has an enormous amount of money to spend and entertain with and enjoy with everybody.”

An absolute monarchy

Saudi Arabia has undergone big changes under MBS. Hope noted that it has transformed from a country that was a “kind of quiet place” in the 2000s to a “vibrant” atmosphere. While these alterations have been made, has political progress followed a similar trend?

Hope says that the country has made social progress, but that it has been a “mirage” in comparison to the country’s focus on retaining an absolute monarchy.

“In absolute monarchy, you can’t have people in the streets protesting,” Hope said. “This is their thinking: They have to come and sort of ask the King, ask the Crown Prince, saying: ‘We want this new right, will you give it to us?’ It’s not ‘We have the right and you have to recognize it.’ … It’s very alien for us as Americans to imagine a scenario like that, but that is the way that Saudi Arabia is set up. Everyone has these tools, social media, and they can increasingly talk about things and push the boundaries. But what they can’t push the boundaries on is the political side.”

The first of what is expected to be two Saudi Arabia events by WWE will be hosted this weekend when King & Queen of the Ring heads to Jeddah. It will be the 11th televised event in the country since WWE signed their controversial agreement, adding another $50 million alone to the company’s quarterly earnings. It will also be another small part of the growing story that is Saudi Arabia’s increasingly aggressive foray into the world of sports and entertainment.

About Jack Wannan 246 Articles
Jack Wannan is a journalist from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He writes and reports on professional wrestling, along with other topics like MMA, boxing, music, local news, and more. He graduated from Toronto Metropolitan University in 2023 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He can be reached at [email protected]