Why WWE WrestleMania matters to fans in the Middle East

Once seemingly only catering to a specific demographic, the company enjoys major appeal worldwide beyond just white American men

WWE's signature yearly event WrestleMania has grown more significant for regional fans due to the increased number of events held in the Gulf. AFP
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The WWE bills WrestleMania as “the grandest stage of them all”. For fans around the Middle East and the world, that platform extends far beyond a stadium in America.

This annual wrestling spectacle – which returns this weekend – is WWE’s most significant yearly event and one that fans in the region eagerly anticipate. Over the past few years, it has grown immensely in both cultural influence and its schedule. This year, a vast array of matches stretch over two days.

Since its inception in 1985, every WrestleMania has been held in North America, predominantly in the US, with the exceptions of WrestleMania VI in 1990 and WrestleMania X8 in 2002, both of which took place in Toronto. However, any notion that the big-time event lacks global appeal due to its US-centric locations might surprise some.

I still vividly remember going to my first WrestleMania in 2019. Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey made history as they headlined the main event in a triple threat match – a first for female wrestlers – in front of a crowd of 82,265 at MetLife Stadium.

And while the event was as grand as it has been made out to be, perhaps the most impressive part was just how many people from around the world came to East Rutherford, New Jersey (population a little more than 10,000), just for it.

During the WrestleMania 35 weekend, I met fans from Kuwait, China, Australia, Finland and Chile to name a few. Despite not speaking the same language, everyone was connected because of this event. Tickets aren't cheap and packages for international travellers can get pricey, but for those who are passionate about professional wrestling, it doesn’t seem to matter.

WWE once seemingly catered to a mostly white, male demographic. However, the modern fan base is more diverse, with a particular fervency here in the Gulf. This is in part thanks to the company’s hiring of wider talent through international trials and scouting. It also makes deliberate moves to increase its regional footprint, with talent that focuses on the Middle East.

In 2017, WWE held a talent search in Dubai and showcased its global reach by drawing participants from 18 countries, including the UAE, Palestine, Nigeria and Brazil.

International scouting continued to Saudi Arabia in 2018, when Mansoor was signed, marking a milestone as the first Saudi wrestler to join WWE (although he has since been released). He was in good company at the time, joining other wrestlers with Arab heritage such as Sami Zayn, of Syrian descent, and Mojo Rawley, with Palestinian and Syrian roots.

Zayn is particularly popular with fans in the Middle East and his connection to the region extends far beyond mere platitudes. For years, he has run the charity Sami for Syria, for which he has teamed up with the Syrian American Medical Society to help provide medical care for those in need in the country.

He has also drawn attention for his stance on the Israel-Gaza war in which he seemingly showed subtle signs of support for Palestine through his actions, such as a cutting promo in the ring where he spoke about “resistance” to “oppressive” regimes.

Any doubt on his stance on the matter can be settled through the public “likes” tab on his X page, which predominantly highlights content that supports peace in Palestine.

However, WWE's diversity extends beyond Arab heritage, with stars like Asuka and Iyo Sky from Japan, Rhea Ripley from Australia, Finn Balor and Lynch from Ireland, Xia Li from China, and Drew McIntyre from Scotland further enhancing the roster.

There are even efforts to feature more diverse storylines and performers aiming to resonate with audiences from different cultural backgrounds. This includes Ghanaian-American Kofi Kingston being crowned WWE champion in 2019 and Indian-Canadian wrestler Jinder Mahal winning the title in 2017.

Another factor contributing to the company’s success in building a strong international fan base is its recent commitment to hosting more international shows, with multiple major premium live events held in the Gulf each year.

This is most evident with WWE’s 10-year partnership with Saudi General Sports Authority (now known as the Ministry of Sport) signed in 2018, which ensures pay-per-view events are held in the kingdom. The year after, the deal was expanded to two “large-scale events” to be held annually.

Since signing the deal, the company has hosted 10 shows in Riyadh and Jeddah in a bid to further grow its appeal in the Middle East.

The WWE has expanded its international reach since 2022, hosting more shows abroad such as Clash at the Castle in Cardiff, Wales; Elimination Chamber in Montreal, Canada; Backlash in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Elimination Chamber: Perth in Burswood, Australia.

While the uninitiated may still struggle to understand the appeal of professional wrestling, there's no denying the company's status as a global powerhouse that unites fans worldwide through sports entertainment.

Updated: April 05, 2024, 12:00 PM