WWE CCO Paul Levesque enters WrestleMania XL | WWE

WWE held its first Saudi Arabia-based event of the year, “King & Queen of the Ring,” on Saturday. The show marked the beginning of the company’s seventh year running events in the nation since announcing a 10-year partnership between the pro wrestling outlet, the Saudi Ministry of Sport and the Saudi General Entertainment Authority in 2018.

It also represented the seventh year of the wrestling world contending with the world’s largest pro wrestling organization being in bed with a government with a horrendous human rights record, especially regarding its treatment of LGBTQ people and women.

WWE has skated by these talking points in various ways throughout the partnership, from actively participating in PSAs highlighting Saudi women gaining the right to drive (despite multiple activists at the center of that movement being detained when the law was reversed in 2018) to various WWE superstars appearing in ads for government-owned airline Saudia and promoting out WWE wrestler Sonya Deville’s attendance of a GLAAD event while the company was in the Saudi city of Jeddah for an event.

The company also utilized the inclusion of female wrestlers on Saudi-based events beginning in Oct. 2019 to claim it was breaking new ground for women in the nation and highlight the progressive nature of the Saudi government. Neither sentiment is fully true.

The 2019 match between Natalya and Lacey Evans was the first all-female wrestling match ever in the nation, female entertainers were allowed to perform within the Kingdom years prior to the match, and while small concessions have been made regarding women’s rights in recent years, its record on gender equality still ranks near the bottom according the World Economic Forum.

The nation’s reputation regarding gender equality caused an uproar earlier this year when Saudi Arabia was named as the chair of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women.

And, of course, the same public relations breathrough within the nation hasn’t been afforded to LGBTQ populations via these WWE events. There was no grandstanding when Piper Niven became the first out LGBTQ WWE wrestler to appear on a WWE Saudi event in 2021. There hasn’t been any mention of how the Saudi government has improved on its abysmal LGBTQ rights record. Queerness as it relates to WWE and Saudi Arabia has been completely absent in all of the grand posturing these shows have come to embody.

But all of that occurred prior to what WWE has coined as a new era for the company, the “Paul Levesque era,” referring to former pro wrestler and current WWE chief content officer and head of creative Paul “Triple H” Levesque.

Since the second ousting of longtime WWE CEO and chairman Vince McMahon earlier this year after a former WWE employee filed suit alleging McMahon of sexual assault and sex trafficking, Levesque has been the face of the company’s leadership publicly alongside WWE president Nick Khan. The company’s programming heavily framed this post-McMahon era around Levesque at April’s “WrestleMania XL” event, signaling a change in creative direction, WWE’s reticence to work with other wrestling promotions and a shift in approach to business dealings more in line with its TKO Group Holdings partner UFC.

WWE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia without McMahon, a huge proponent of the deal, came into question as well. But all things point to that partnership only strengthening under this new era.

During an appearance on Ariel Helwani’s “The MMA Hour” last week, Saudi General Entertainment Authority chairman Turki Alalshikh said that Saudi Arabia is hoping to host one or both of WWE’s most popular annual events, the “Royal Rumble” and “WrestleMania,” as early as 2026. TKO president Mark Shapiro added credence to Alalshikh’s statement days later at the J.P. Morgan Technology, Media & Communications Conference, saying that the company planned to expand its relationship with the Saudi government “in the next six to 12 months.”

“Very happy with [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] and the partnership we have there,” Shapiro said. “We have two events a year, but we’re already in discussions — Nick Khan is leading that for us — in expanding that to more events.”

The company drew criticism heading into the weekend’s event when it posted photos of female WWE wrestlers relaxing on a private Saudi beach with captions dripping with enough PR language to garner comparisons to propaganda.

“When WWE shares images of its female stars posing on a beach in Saudi Arabia, the intended message is that life here is normal. However, the reality is that the vast majority of Saudi citizens, excluding the affluent few, continue to exist under brutal oppression, all while sports leagues mask their struggles,” wrote Sports Politika founder Karim Zidan.

“The fact that the state security can really break into your house and take your daughter or your sister without you being able to know where they are, this is exactly the definition of a police state and this is what Saudi Arabia has become under Mohammed bin Salman,” Saudi human rights activist Lina Al Hathloul said during 2021’s Play The Game conference.

None of these criticisms are meant to impact the personal importance that individual WWE wrestlers feel when achieving historic firsts or the eye-level impact on Saudi citizens when they have the chance to meet them. Those moments can be incredibly gratifying and make one feel like they are part of a bigger impact for the positive. Plus, it’s pretty fun to go to a wrestling show. Wrestling fans everywhere should have opportunities to enjoy that experience.

But WWE as a corporate entity isn’t exempt from criticism. The company makes approximately $50 million for each event it holds in Saudi Arabia and their partnership currently isn’t set to expire until 2027. Those payments have become a major part of WWE topping revenue records year after year, but it increasingly comes at the cost of its character. It has been complicit in the Saudi crown’s sportswashing strategy since day one of its partnership, and any hope of that changing in this “new era” couldn’t stand a chance against the capitalist dogma of WWE.

So is it correct to call this “new era” anything different from the previous regime?

In the months since McMahon’s ouster, fans have seen Levesque poorly answer questions regarding the lawsuit and allegations against McMahon (on which WWE is also a named defendant), a WWE PR representative allegedly degrade out freelance reporter Lucas Charpiot for asking a question in a press conference and multiple WWE, TKO and Endeavor executives stonewall transparent discussions around work culture and employee protections in the wake of the filings against McMahon. The company line is that since McMahon is the bad apple that needed to be cast out and there aren’t any other issues to discuss.

And now the company is planning to get even further in bed with a regime that continues to criminalize queerness and mask its deplorable human rights record with the gaudy spectacle of WWE, UFC, pro boxing, the WTA and Christiano Ronaldo.

Same as it ever was.