The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WWE wrestlers rumble in Saudi stadium, defying calls for boycott over Khashoggi killing

World Wrestling Entertainment stars Bobby Lashley, left, and Seth Rollins perform during the Crown Jewel event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Ahmed Yosri/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Mohammed screamed for his favorite WWE wrestler, a mountain of muscle named Rusev, who was taking a beating in the ring.

“This is amazing!” said Mohammed, 19, a student sitting in the stands of King Saud University’s soccer stadium with 25,000 other howling, cheering, clapping fans. “It doesn’t happen every week like in the U.S. We get to do this maybe one time a year!”

At a moment when international anger is focused on Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, World Wrestling Entertainment, that uniquely American combination of soaring athleticism and campy theatrics, came rumbling into Riyadh on Friday night for Crown Jewel, an extravaganza of two dozen wrestlers, laser lights and thumping rock music.

After the Saudi and U.S. national anthems played, and prayers from the Koran echoed out under a cool desert night sky, Hulk Hogan, the evening’s host, strutted to the ring wearing yellow sunglasses and a feather boa amid a massive fireworks display.

As the WWE wrestlers snarled and stomped each other silly in the ring, there was no sign of the controversy that has dogged Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The Saudi government has acknowledged that Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist and frequent critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed by Saudi agents. Turkish officials have said his body was dismembered and possibly dissolved in acid.

Leadersin Congress and Europe have condemned the killing, demanding answers and punishment for Saudi Arabia. There is widespread suspicion that Prince Mohammed, the country’s de facto leader, was behind the assassination — despite the Saudi government’s vehement denials.

Late last month, scores of influential sponsors and speakers boycotted Saudi’s signature investment conference in Riyadh in protest of Khashoggi’s killing. And WWE has faced calls from members of Congress and its own fans to pull out of the Riyadh event.

WWE officials in Riyadh declined to comment on the Khashoggi controversy and referred to a company statement saying it was “a difficult decision” to come to Saudi Arabia after the “heinous crime.”

“WWE has operated in the Middle East for nearly 20 years and has developed a sizable and dedicated fan base,” the statement said. It added: “Similar to other U.S.-based companies who plan to continue operations in Saudi Arabia, the company has decided to uphold its contractual obligations.”

Spectacles like Crown Jewel are part of larger social and economic reforms being driven by Prince Mohammed, which include expanding mixed-gender entertainment like WWE in this deeply conservative culture.

Prince Mohammed has also been widely criticized for jailing scores of people who voice even mild criticism of him — as Khashoggi frequently did. But the prince’s social reforms are popular with many Saudis in Riyadh, especially with young people.

In the $12 cheap seats, which came with a buffet dinner, young men cracked themselves up by yelling “You suck!” at the top of their lungs. Mohammed and his friends were so excited, they had a hard time sitting still.

They said allegations that MBS, as the prince is known, had anything to do with Khashoggi’s death were “lies.” But in a country where the prince jails people for reasons that can be unclear, the young men were also careful to insist that only their first names be used.

“MBS is making Saudi great again!” Mohammed said, as Rusev took a head-butt to the groin and the mostly male crowd groaned “ooooh.” “He is making it great for real. Donald Trump is just saying words. MBS speaks with actions.”

Under the exploding fireworks, Abdul Aziz, 16, said he thought the controversy over Khashoggi’s slaying was a ploy by Democrats in the United States aimed at winning the midterm elections next week so they could start impeachment proceedings against Trump.

“It’s all about politics,” said the teenager, who said he follows U.S. politics closely on television news.

Trump has become increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia’s response in the Khashoggi case, although he has also expressed a keen desire to maintain relations with a key ally and purchaser of U.S.-made weapons.

Trump is a longtime supporter of WWE and a member of its Hall of Fame. He once collected on a bet with WWE co-founder and chairman Vince McMahon by shaving McMahon’s head on live television. McMahon’s wife and WWE co-founder, Linda McMahon, was nominated by Trump to head of the Small Business Administration.

WWE and the McMahons have returned the love. Linda McMahon was the third-largest financial backer of Trump’s 2016 campaign, giving $7.5 million to pro-Trump super PACs, the Republican National Committee and his campaign, according to tax and campaign finance records. Between 2007 and 2009, she and her husband also gave $5 million to Trump’s charitable foundation.

WWE stages about 40 live events overseas each year and has been coming to the Middle East since a show in Kuwait in 1996, staging more than 40 live events in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar. Friday’s show was the 10th WWE has held in Saudi Arabia since 2014. It is part of a long-term partnership between WWE and the Saudi General Sports Authority.

At a news conference on Thursday, fawning Saudi journalists lined up for photos with three WWE wrestlers who were not eager to discuss the Khashoggi controversy when asked by a Post reporter.

“WWE has released a statement on that,” said Nicholas Nemeth, who set collegiate records as a wrestler at Kent State University in Ohio and now performs for WWE under the stage name Dolph Ziggler.

“We love traveling the world and representing WWE and putting on a great show,” he said. “The more we can come here and have that relationship with the fans, the better I think it is for all of us.”

The boys in the bleachers agreed.

“You should leave politics to politics and entertainment to entertainment,” Mohammed said. “This helps the United States and it helps Saudi Arabia, so everyone is winning. We are helping the situation get better between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

One month after Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, these key questions remain unanswered

Trump and the Saudis keep fumbling after Khashoggi’s killing

In the Saudi countryside, Khashoggi’s death seems remote and royal involvement far-fetched

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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