Global wrestling juggernaut WWE has long enjoyed a huge fan base in the Middle East.
Syrian-Canadian wrestler Sami Zayn, one of the stars of the franchise, speaks fondly of staying up late, to catch weeks-old TV updates on what was happening in the US-based franchise.
And when the stars come here to fight, the shows are packed.
It is, therefore, surprising that there has never been a locally produced, Arabic-language show dedicated to WWE.
Until now. WWE Wal300ha debuts on May 4 on OSN Sports Action 1, with the promise of match highlights, analysis, previews and behind-the-scenes reports.
It will also include local WWE activity, such as the tryouts for would-be stars that took place at Dubai Opera last week.
The show, produced in a new, purpose-built studio in Dubai, is presented by the tag team of Emirati magician Moen Al Bastaki and former Lebanese women’s basketball captain Nathalie Mamo – an eclectic pairing for a sport that loves to confound expectations.
“WWE calls itself sport/entertainment – well, I have the magic background and Nathalie has the sport background – so we really are combining the two,” says Al Bastaki with a laugh.
Though the presenter exhibits a light-hearted approach to his role, he is serious about the show and its importance to WWE in the region.
“I was a big fan for years before becoming presenter, and so it was important to deliver a show that does justice to what we’ve loved for years and years and years,” he says.
“I think it’s a good start to have this programme and, hopefully, it can expand to the other divisions of WWE – things like the commentary and all the other stuff. There’s talk of Arabic commentary in future – it’s just talk and rumours at the moment, but we’re starting with this programme and let’s see where we go.”
Zayn, who joined the presenters at the show’s launch in Dubai last weekend, shares this hope that it will merely be the start of big things for regional WWE coverage and content.
“This show is huge for the region,” he says. “When I signed to WWE, one of the big things for me was the possibility to expand in this region – and if I can be viewed as a positive ambassador for fans in any way – then that’s a really big deal for me and not something I take lightly at all.
“This is a giant step, that goes without saying, but hopefully just the first of many.”
Co-presenter Mamo admits she was not a WWE devotee before landing her presenting job, but sees this as a positive step as she will be better able to help introduce the sport to the uninitiated.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been a big fan of WWE for years,” she says. “There’s a huge fan base for it here but there’s also a big section of the audience that doesn’t really understand what the sport is about and just sees it as entertainment – I was probably one of them. But honestly, now that I’m inside I really understand.”
Mamo sees some of her own sporting experiences reflected in those of the franchise’s stars.
“I’ve dedicated my life to sport, and since I stopped playing basketball professionally, I’ve been presenting sports for about eight years,” she says.
“Female sports presenters aren’t something you see too often in the Arab world. I can really relate to the dedication of these guys, to how hard they train day and night to deliver such a show. They’re really professional athletes before anything else.”
While Arabic commentary, an increased live WWE presence in the region and more Arab stars may remain as wishful thinking for now, Al Bastaki says the show will feature plenty of local content to keep fans happy.
“The fans I speak to are really feeling connected to the show and so excited that it’s finally coming to them in Arabic,” he says.
“We’ll be speaking to them a lot. We’ll have a big documentary section on the Dubai tryouts on the show, we’ll be constantly engaging through social media, and we’ll have a Facebook live session after the show every week to interact with fans.
“We’re so excited – it’s really a show for everyone.”
Zayn, too, is hopeful the show will connect with the local audience in a way imported content cannot.
“The fan base and the culture is very different [to wrestling in North America],” he says. “But I love wrestling out here. I’ve done events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, and it’s like I’m among my home people, just as if I was wrestling in my hometown of Montreal.
“It really feels like home when I wrestle in the Middle East and want that to expand and wrestle in more Middle Eastern countries: in Qatar and Bahrain and Egypt and Libya. I want to go everywhere and just keep expanding.”
• WWE Wal300ha begins at 9pm on Thursday, May 4 on OSN Sports Action 1, with new editions every Thursday