Fight Club: American Wrestling Comes to the Middle East
The Middle East’s love affair with American professional wrestling is being egged on by the industry—and is even welcomed by some regional governments.
June 9, 2017The fight in Dubai drew combatants from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Egypt. Several women even joined the fray. But all of them were struggling for the same cause—to be the next Middle Eastern superstars of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
American professional wrestling has long had a devoted following in the Middle East. As the industry sizes up the regional market’s potential, it is showing more love back. Industry titan WWE, which counts 40 million Facebook followers across the Middle East, is leading the charge. Since opening its third international office in Dubai, the company launched an Arabic website in 2012 and flew out its stars for live-action extravaganzas in Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. In 2017, it debuted a weekly commentary program in Arabic, Wal3ooha (“Light it up”), which airs in primetime on the Orbit satellite television network.
To cater to regional tastes, WWE is diligently localizing its content. Once known for villains such as “The Iron Sheik” (who was actually Iranian-American) the network is recruiting white-hat heroes from the Middle East. Wrestling stars record Ramadan greetings to fans, and Middle Eastern matches are more “family-friendly.”
WWE’s ambitions fit well with governments’ own campaigns to broaden entertainment options for their youthful populations. WWE’s Doha match was sponsored by Qatar’s state tourism bureau, and the Qatari royal family arranged a VIP show when ringside seats sold out. Since Saudi Arabia hosted its first throwdown in 2014, authorities have booked matches annually. Unlike in the streets, the fights are pure entertainment.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.