Saudi Arabia’s Tightening Grip on Sports

REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri
Soccer Football – Saudi Pro League – Al Nassr v Al Khaleej – Al-Awwal Park, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – November 4, 2023 Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo in action

The New Kings of Sports

A series examining how investments by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are upending global sports.


One night in the fall of 2019, more than a hundred professional wrestlers and their handlers, exhausted from a grueling show, headed to a private airport in Saudi Arabia to catch a charter flight back to the United States.

Then the delays began – 15 minutes at a time at first before hours started to slip by with explanations they found dubious about technical malfunctions. Armed men appeared, the wrestlers later said, appearing to block the exits. The wrestlers’ handlers were in heated, hushed conversations with one another and airport officials. And rumors flew of a storyline worthy of pro wrestling, pitting their own flamboyantly macho boss against an autocrat recently implicated in bloody vengeance by bone saw.

By then, the year-and-a-half-old partnership between World Wrestling Entertainment, the publicly traded corporation behind Hulk Hogan, and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had already survived plenty: staged confrontations used as propaganda to ratchet up regional tensions, death threats and the alleged state-sponsored murder of a journalist that caused other American corporations to shirk Saudi investment.

None of it, though, had led WWE to end its “strategic multiplatform partnership” with the kingdom that was struck months before the assassination of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and called for the broadcast of at least one Saudi-held WWE mega-event per year.

The Saudis, eager to whip up nationalism as they strove to modernize the country, saw great potential in WWE’s rigged pageantry. And WWE’s shareholders quickly grew attached to the estimated $50 million in proceeds taken from every Saudi show, assuming they were paid on time.

But the evening after that Crown Jewel show in Riyadh in 2019, WWE’s talent, who are accustomed to travel plans going awry, began to suspect their grounding was not a typical delay.

When the wrestlers were finally allowed onto the plane, the aircraft was surrounded by military police and remained stranded on the tarmac, according to their accounts in interviews and court records. Wrestlers said their colleagues, from camera operators to a WWE executive, discussed an alleged feud between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and then-WWE CEO Vince McMahon over a late multimillion-dollar payment.

“Are we, like, in a hostage situation or something?” wrestler Karl Anderson said he asked a colleague.

Several others on the plane had the same fear, expressed in text messages and tweets from that night and in interviews later. The charter company said the delays were due to a “mechanical issue,” and WWE denied any financial feud. The wrestlers were finally removed from the plane and ultimately flew home more than 24 hours after their scheduled departure.

They returned with frayed nerves that revealed the level of fear and mistrust the wrestlers had for their on-paper partners. “With such a corrupt government,” Anderson said during a podcast interview, recalling his thinking that night, “who’s to say they’re not going to come in here and start blasting us for whatever reason?”

It briefly looked like the potential end of the Saudi shows. Wrestlers and their spouses tweeted about how they never wanted to be sent back. But like Saudi Arabia, WWE is not a democracy.

In the days after the incident, the company announced it was doubling down on its lucrative partnership with the kingdom, guaranteeing not one but two large-scale events there per year. The agreement, WWE said in a news release, demonstrated the partners’ “commitment to bring sports entertainment to the region and supports Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030,” a reference to the kingdom’s modernization plan.

In a recent statement to The Post, a WWE spokesperson called the suspicion among wrestlers that the charter plane delays were intentional a “patently false theory and completely made-up story.”

Saudi Arabia’s history with WWE, like much of its frenetic investment in sports and entertainment over the past few years, is a study in how little diplomacy is needed when you control one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in history. Using their Public Investment Fund, valued at more than $776 billion, the Saudis have effectively bought some of the world’s most loyal fan bases, bent opponents to their will and wildly shifted the economics of international sports.

In the sports world, overcoming a reputation as a global pariah – condemned by human rights organizations for alleged war atrocities and its links to the Sept. 11 hijackers, the imprisonment of activists and the Khashoggi assassination – has been as simple for Saudi Arabia as advancing claims of innocence or autonomy.

When the PIF purchased 130-year-old soccer club Newcastle United in 2021, following a protracted stalemate over Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in one of the world’s largest digital piracy operations, the English Premier League said it received “legally binding assurances” that the kingdom would not control the club. Those assurances were despite glaring indications to the contrary, such as Mohammed being the PIF’s chairman.

Transformative sums of money have repeatedly plowed over such concerns. The Saudi Pro League has become the default destination for aging soccer legends seeking unprecedented paydays, including Cristiano Ronaldo, who reportedly is paid roughly $220 million per year to play for Al Nassr. Lionel Messi turned down a similar bounty in favor of playing in the United States. But he still agreed to promote Saudi Arabia for a reported $25 million under a contract that mandates he is not permitted to make any remarks that “tarnish” the kingdom.

The PIF has poured billions more into securing a stop on the Formula One circuit, hosting boxing matches and launching a thoroughbred race with a $20 million purse. And its most audacious sports coup yet appears on the horizon after FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, confirmed that Saudi Arabia was the only nation to submit a bid to host the 2034 World Cup.

The Saudis have used their financial clout to ground down enemies in ways big and small, from Iranian American wrestlers facing scripted humiliation in WWE shows to American golf executives being forced to swallow previous bitter condemnations of the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s golf takeover this year, in which the kingdom coerced the PGA Tour into a planned alliance after effectively winning a game of high-stakes chicken over the fate of one of the world’s most popular sports, struck some analysts as the final dam to break in the sports world’s resistance to Saudi involvement.

“Post-Khashoggi, there are a few years where a lot of businesses and a lot of these new areas that had started to partner with Saudi Arabia, they cut their ties – some of them at great financial cost,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “And I think we’re definitely past that period. Now Saudi Arabia has some momentum.”

‘People fear them’

In an interview with Newsweek shortly before his murder, Khashoggi, once a close associate of the Saudi royal family, derided the two men who he said were Mohammed’s only powerful advisers.

“They are very thuggish,” Khashoggi said of Mohammed’s lieutenants, according to a transcript of the interview published after his death. “People fear them. [If] you challenge them, you might end up in prison, and that has happened.”

One of those men, Saud al-Qahtani, would later be accused of overseeing, via Skype, Khashoggi’s murder. The other, Turki al-Sheikh, is Mohammed’s handpicked sports czar.

Sheikh, Mohammed’s former bodyguard, was central to his boss’s forceful rise in the kingdom. When the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, pledged fealty to Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 – after reportedly being held against his will until he agreed to relinquish power – Sheikh could be seen lingering behind the two men.

A few months later, Mohammed’s men imprisoned hundreds of Saudi elites at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, where they were allegedly beaten and tortured. Mohammed maintained it was a cleansing of the kingdom’s corrupt figures, but it was also a display of his unquestioned power – and that of the advisers who helped him pull it off.

After Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s richest men, was released from the Ritz, he announced his donation – at “the invitation of my brother Turki al-Sheikh” – of roughly half a million dollars to a Saudi soccer club. Sheikh was named chairman of the kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority that year, putting him in charge of all things sports.

Sheikh celebrated by buying a $4.8 million Bugatti before landing on a larger vanity purchase. After a stint as honorary president of an Egyptian soccer club ended with him warring with management, Sheikh poured millions into buying a rival team and moving it to Cairo. Months later, he abandoned Egyptian soccer while lamenting the “headache.”

And while Mohammed has touted a vision for Saudi Arabia said to include treating women as equal citizens and integrating them more fully into the workforce, his lieutenant has at times enforced the opposite ideal. That includes, in 2018, calling for the prosecution of those involved in a gym that ran a promotional video featuring women in workout attire.

Sheikh’s management style has embodied Saudi Arabia’s foray into global sports: free-spending, rancorous and hyper-political. He commandeered the lectern at an international chess tournament in Riyadh to rail against “ministate” Qatar, and he ranted that the Saudi soccer team had put in “less than 5 percent effort” during a World Cup loss to Russia. With his penchant for showmanship, it was perhaps inevitable that one of the PIF’s first massive investments would be bringing WWE to Saudi Arabia – and, with it, hired wrestlers acting out the humiliation of what was then a Saudi enemy nation.

At the Greatest Royal Rumble in Riyadh in April 2018, two Iranian American wrestlers, waving the Iranian flag, confronted four young Saudi wrestlers. The scripted comeuppance was swift: The Saudis pummeled the Iranians, brothers Ariya and Shawn Daivari, threw them out of the ring and sent them limping away as the crowd jeered.

The nationalistic undertones were not subtle. Saudi Arabia and Iran were bitter rivals and a few years earlier had cut all diplomatic ties amid rising tensions.

Finding Iranian wrestlers to turn heel in Saudi Arabia had taken some maneuvering. Shawn Daivari, who was not signed to WWE, was hired just for that role. Ariya Daivari later explained that he was flown to Saudi Arabia despite being injured at the time. The brothers, from Minnesota, had not previously emphasized their ethnicity in their wrestling careers. But Ariya Daivari said during a podcast interview that he understood the storyline was the idea of Mohammed himself. Sheikh was front and center at the show, and he even pretended to steal the championship belt.

“From what I was told, that was requested from the Saudi prince,” Ariya Daivari said. “At the end of the day, it was his idea, and for me, particularly being fairly new at the time, you’re not going to say no to stuff.”

He said he received death threats afterward, prompting him to apologize and assert that he was “very proud” of his Iranian heritage. He later said he was “uneducated on how big the tensions are between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

Many Westerners ascribe a singular motive to Saudi Arabia, if not the entire Middle East, for its interest in sports: sportswashing. And Saudi Arabia has used sports to market its supposed makeover to the outside world – and to guard its image.

The WWE broadcast, for example, included an infomercial for the country touting reforms, including that women could now legally drive – even as the kingdom continued to punish activists who had fought for that right. And the PIF required the PGA Tour to include in their agreement a broad nondisparagement clause that lawmakers worried could silence golfers critical of the kingdom.

But scholars insist sportswashing is an oversimplified – and even self-centered – label. “I’ve never encountered [sportswashing] as a motivation when speaking with Saudi decision-makers,” said Princeton University professor Bernard Haykel, who has written a book on modern Saudi Arabia and is working on another.

Another key currency in sports (and adjacent Spandex-clad theater) was embedded in that brief anti-Iranian WWE storyline, a forgettable footnote for American viewers. Saudi leaders have attempted to move the country away from religious fundamentalism, or Islamism, to replace it with something more palatable to global commerce: nationalism, partly ginned up by crushing Middle Eastern rivals at a game it came late to.

Saudi Arabia, with its geriatric leadership until six years ago, had inadvertently given the United Arab Emirates and Qatar a decades-long head start at investing in sports – but the much larger country has been a bully ever since.

“These countries compete with each other, and Saudi sees itself as the 800-pound gorilla in the region, which it is,” Haykel said. “So Saudi Arabia’s supercharging everything and anything the other countries touch.”

Haykel added that, by dissuading potential religious extremism, “The idea is to get the country to look quote-unquote ‘normal.’ “

To that end, Mohammed went on an American goodwill tour in 2018, meeting presidents and billionaires and touring newspaper offices, culminating in a Time cover story and multibillion-dollar deals with bankers.

But the murder of Khashoggi later that year didn’t quite fit the mandate for normalcy.

Tension on the tarmac

In the weeks following Khashoggi’s death Oct. 2, 2018, detailed evidence quickly emerged that implicated the highest rungs of the Saudi government. Global business leaders were left to assess whether they could maintain existing deals – or strike new ones – with a kingdom capable of murder.

One of the first to decide was Ari Emanuel, CEO of Endeavor, the talent and media conglomerate in which the Saudis had agreed to invest $400 million. Calling the situation “upsetting,” Emanuel oversaw the return of the investment – and reportedly began traveling with bodyguards out of apparent fear of the Saudis’ wrath.

WWE had one month to make its own decision before the Crown Jewel event in Riyadh on Nov. 2. A week before the show, the company announced to its shareholders that while the “heinous crime committed at the Saudi consulate” made its decision difficult, the company planned to “uphold its contractual obligations.”

This time, the propaganda was significantly dialed down during the broadcast: The host city was referred to as Riyadh, with no mention of Saudi Arabia. But, as always, McMahon was on hand as part of the show.

A corporate decision by a pro wrestling outfit was mostly lost in the growing furor over Khashoggi’s murder. But WWE’s determination to do business with Saudi Arabia sent a significant message to other corporations that they could as well, said Karim Zidan, a journalist who has written about the intersection of politics and sports in his newsletter, Sports Politika.

Zidan called the decision “one of those key moments of reputation laundering and propaganda that Mohammed bin Salman needed at that time: an American organization with a billionaire as famous as Vince McMahon appearing in Saudi Arabia and things going on as normal.”

WWE’s corporate leadership may have decided Saudi Arabia was an appropriate partner, but its wrestlers remained uneasy, as evidenced by the murky case of the charter plane delay in Riyadh the following year. WWE insisted the delay was a nonevent even as its wrestlers tweeted and sent text messages about being stranded and referred to it as a “hostage” situation.

Multiple wrestlers have spoken publicly about that night. Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, who wrestle as the Good Brothers, discussed the incident after leaving WWE, recalling discussions in the airport about how McMahon cut the Saudi television live feed over owed money and describing growing increasingly worried over the inexplicable delays.

Another wrestler, AJ Styles, downplayed the feeling of danger but said the explanation for the delay “doesn’t make much sense.” (Anderson and Gallows have since returned to WWE. They and Styles did not respond to requests for comment.)

Three other people who were on the plane spoke with The Post, on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, and described poorly explained delays that were longer than any others in their careers.

The incident became central to a lawsuit filed by WWE shareholders in 2020. Those investors, including public retirement systems in Missouri and Michigan, claimed WWE misled them about souring relations with the kingdom leading up to the charter plane incident.

The investors’ lawyers cited a late $60 million payment from the PIF to WWE that they suggested led to McMahon cutting the Saudi television live feed of the Crown Jewel event. The Saudis retaliated, the lawsuit claimed, by refusing to allow the wrestlers to fly out.

The lawsuit cited as a witness an unidentified wrestler who claimed a WWE official on the plane had told him about the feud between McMahon and Mohammed and that the crown prince had grown “very mad” after WWE cut the feed. The WWE official he said he spoke with, since-retired talent executive Mark Carrano, would not comment on the record when reached by The Post.

WWE’s lawyers denied the lawsuit’s allegations, arguing in filings that they were based on “rank speculation, innuendo [and] uninformed and unreliable internet postings.” In late 2020, WWE settled the lawsuit for $39 million, court records show.

The wrestlers acknowledge that they don’t know whether they were actually held hostage – but at least some of them still don’t buy the official story, either.

“Do I think something happened? Do I think they did something to that plane to not let us take off at the right time?” Anderson posited in 2020. “F— yes.”

In the kingdom’s corner

In the years since Khashoggi’s murder, financial leaders returned to doing business with Saudi Arabia, partly revealed when the kingdom released a list of partners in venture capital, including some of the highest-profile firms in the world. (That includes Amazon, founded by Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post. In 2022, the PIF invested roughly $430 million in Amazon.) In sports, reticent executives became increasingly easy marks for a kingdom practiced at bending opponents to its will.

The PIF’s effort to purchase Newcastle United was stalled by Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in one of the world’s largest piracy operations, which for years brazenly stole Qatari content, including that of Premier League games, and beamed it to set-top boxes in Saudi homes.

Saudi Arabia denied having a role in the piracy. Investigations by several organizations, from the World Trade Organization to FIFA, found otherwise. The piracy halted just before the PIF was set to complete its purchase of Newcastle.

The Premier League also accepted what it called “legally binding assurances” from the PIF that the Saudi state would not have control over the club. But the PIF’s lawyers later acknowledged in a court filing in a separate matter that the fund is a “sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and that its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan – now the Newcastle United chairman – is a “sitting minister of the Saudi government.”

Premier League CEO Richard Masters said before a British Parliament committee this year that the league was “completely aware” of the contradictory statements. “I cannot really comment on it,” he said. “Even on the point, ‘Is the Premier League investigating it?’ – we cannot really comment on it.”

Newcastle United fans celebrated the closing of the deal by flocking to the stadium in makeshift Saudi ceremonial clothing. That sort of embrace in the sports world caused Mohammed to grow bolder, said James Dorsey, an author who studies the relationship between the Middle East and global soccer. “He’s going to look at having successfully overcome the killing” of Khashoggi and arrive at one conclusion, Dorsey said: “The majority of fans don’t care.”

But the PGA Tour presented a new level of adversary. Its executives previously shamed and banned those who chose to compete for LIV Golf, a PIF-funded rival organization poaching top golfers with astronomic bonuses. In court, PGA Tour lawyers accused LIV of using “the game of golf to sportswash the recent history of Saudi atrocities.”

Nonetheless, the Saudis pursued a Hail Mary of an alliance between the institutions, which at the time were embroiled in litigation. A Saudi-appointed middleman, British businessman Roger Devlin, wrote to a PGA Tour representative in April that if they didn’t explore a merger in the next couple of months, “I feel the Saudis will doubledown on their investment and golf will be split asunder in perpetuity.”

The tone may have been polite, but the warning embedded in those words conveyed the power of Saudi Arabia’s scattershot approach to sports. The Saudis – with a diversified portfolio full of other sports – were willing to blow up golf. Pro golf executives, it turns out, were not.

This time, it was the PGA Tour that displayed its fealty to the crown prince. In June, the organization agreed to an alliance, forcing PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan to go on a hypocrisy-owning media tour. (The PGA Tour declined to comment for this article.)

Emails later released by a Senate subcommittee showed the playbook behind the alliance. PGA Tour officials were wooed with materials that emphasized Al-Rumayyan’s status as an everyday “avid sports enthusiast” who happened to be “very close” to political and financial players such as Jared Kushner and Steven Mnuchin.

And for the kingdom’s busy carousel of new sports partners, the records showed that addressing its alleged atrocities had become a rote business. In prepping possible questions for Monahan, a PGA Tour official wrote, “Human rights, 9-11 families, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, etc.” He suggested Monahan keep his answers to a theme of “moving forward.”

That certainly has been WWE’s mantra. While it paused pro-Saudi storylines during its events there in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, the bravado is now back – complete with “MBS!” chants at a WWE news conference this year.

And WWE’s purchase, led by an executive who previously refused to do business with Saudi Arabia, demonstrated the kingdom’s ability to silence even its most prominent critics.

Endeavor, helmed by Ari Emanuel, announced in April a $21 billion deal to merge UFC, its mixed martial arts company, with WWE. Less than five years earlier, Emanuel had returned $400 million to the Saudis so as not to have to partner with them in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. But Endeavor and its related companies had recently done business with the kingdom again – including Endeavor’s IMG negotiating media rights for the Saudi Pro League. Under TKO, the company created in the merger with Emanuel as CEO, WWE plans to continue its Saudi shows. And UFC recently announced it would hold its first event in Saudi Arabia next year.

Endeavor declined to make Emanuel available for an interview. But in a radio interview after the merger was announced, Emanuel appeared to express a softened outlook on Mohammed’s actions, comparing the Khashoggi murder to a U.S. drone strike that killed a New Mexico-born al-Qaeda leader in Yemen in 2011. “Every country does bad things,” Emanuel said. “They just don’t do it in an embassy.”

Asked then why he returned a corporate fortune to the Saudis less than five years ago, Emanuel – who emphasized elsewhere in the interview that his key trait is never being “indifferent” – was at a loss for an explanation.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just, you know – I don’t really, I don’t really know.”