WWE, Saudi Arabia 'Sportswashing' Country's 'Dire Human Rights Record' With First-ever Women's Match

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has been accused of helping Saudi Arabia "sportswash" its "dire human rights record" by promoting what it says is the first-ever women's match on Saudi Arabian soil on Thursday.

WWE announced Wednesday it will host a wrestling match between Natalya and Lacey Evans, two of its female wrestlers, at the Crown Jewel event in Riyadh. The bout signals some progress in the advancement of women's sports and entertainment in the Middle Eastern country—the Saudi Arabian government has not previously permitted WWE to showcase its female performers at events held in Riyadh and Jeddah.

However, leading non-profit human rights organization Amnesty International says Thursday's fight is an attempt to "sportswash" Saudi Arabia's checkered human rights record, which includes the reported detention and torture of women's rights activists. "Sportswashing," as defined by a recent Guardian article, refers to authoritarian regimes using major sporting events to manipulate how they are perceived by international communities and deflect from their human rights records.

"WWE's first-ever women's match taking place in Riyadh is a prime example how the Saudi Arabian authorities are using elite sports to try to 'sportswash' their dire human rights record and image internationally," Dana Ahmed, Saudi Arabia researcher at Amnesty, tells Newsweek.

In September, The Guardian reported how Saudi Arabian authorities under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's direction are luring major sports events—including WWE events, a PGA golf tour and boxing matches headlined by Amir Khan and Anthony Joshua—to position the ultra-conservative Islamic country as more liberal and diversify its economy away from depending on the oil industry as part of its Saudi Vision 2030 plan.

WWE in Saudi Arabia
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Crown Jewel pay-per-view at the King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh on November 2, 2018. Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

"Saudi Arabia is clearly using all the entertainment acts that come in an attempt to sportswash or whitewash," says veteran wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "WWE is taking major money to run events there. As part of the taking major money involved, it is inherent being part of that."

The women's match Thursday has been vaunted by WWE, which billed it as "historic." In an interview with Newsweek Wednesday, WWE's chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon said showcasing women on the Crown Jewel card was a "victory" that she hoped would have a "ripple effect all around the world to show everyone that women belong in the same place that men do." However, McMahon did not address the reality of women in Saudi Arabian society as it stands.

Saudi Arabia has reformed some laws impacting women, notably allowing them to drive and enter sports stadiums for the first time in 2018, but the country still imposes limitations on women such as requiring permission from a male relative to marry and prohibiting women from passing their citizenship on to their children. Until August, women were also bound by strict male guardianship laws that required them to have approval from a male relative to travel, obtain a passport or register a marriage, divorce or birth of a child.

Human rights organizations have also reported abuses against women campaigning for women's rights in Saudi Arabia, as well as their male supporters. In August, Amnesty reported that 14 individuals detained arbitrarily in April for women's rights activism were still in prison. Women's rights activists detained last year in a crackdown were subject to sexual abuse and torture, Amnesty said. Methods of torture against the activists included electric shocks and flogging, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch said in December.

One prominent campaigner, Loujain al-Hathloul, is still believed to be in prison after being detained in May 2018. In June, Hathloul's brother, Walid al-Hathloul, told The Guardian his sister had been subjected to extreme torture allegedly overseen by an advisor to Crown Prince Salman, Saud al-Qahtani.

"He sat in on one of the sessions. He told her: 'I'll kill you, cut you into pieces, throw you in the sewer system. But before that, I'll rape you,'" Walid al-Hathloul alleged.

"While long-overdue women's rights reforms in the country in earlier months are an important step towards equality for women in the country, the reforms are a testament to the tireless campaigning of women's rights activists who have been persecuted for their work towards greater rights," Ahmed, the Amnesty researcher, tells Newsweek.

WWE's relationship with Saudi Arabia has long been a controversial one. Last October, WWE drew criticism for going ahead with a Crown Jewel event in Riyadh just weeks after the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The CIA concluded that Khashoggi was assassinated upon orders from Salman.

Meltzer, the long-time wrestling journalist, notes that WWE downplayed the location of its Saudi Arabia-based events in November and June following the international condemnation of Khashoggi's murder, but has prominently touted the country in its recent promotion for Thursday's Crown Jewel event.

"They obviously feel mentions of the country won't be taken as strongly negative as they would have been one year ago or late last year," says Meltzer. "To me, it's in bad taste, but the wrestling industry has been historically about money with little thought to ethics and if you hope for a high level of ethics from the wrestling industry you will find yourself constantly disappointed."

A WWE spokesperson pointed Newsweek to its earlier interview with Stephanie McMahon when contacted for comment.