Saudi Arabians enjoy escapism and the hope of positive changes at WWE's 'Greatest Royal Rumble'

Mecca is famous for being Islam's holy capital, a place where Muslims are obligated to visit once in their lifetimes.

But there's another, slightly less divine, facet to the city that may surprise people: its passion for the WWE.

"I'm a wrestling fanatic," said 39-year-old Mecca native Naif Nail Gobory, sporting a vintage New World Order T-shirt that marks an era when Hulk Hogan still ruled the wrestling world.

Gobory was a 90-minute drive away at the busy coastal city of Jeddah on the last Friday of April with friend Imad Mujallid to watch the WWE's Greatest Royal Rumble, featuring their all-time favorite wrestler, The Undertaker.

"This is a big thing to happen in Saudi Arabia," said Mujallid, 37, noting that neither had ever been to a WWE event, despite their lifelong obsessions. "We need escaping from time to time."

The WWE's major push into Saudi Arabia is a prime example of the complicated clash between long-held Saudi values and the desire among many younger citizens to embrace more elements of Western culture.

Mujallid is intimately aware of brushing up against the norms of Saudi society. His normal form of weekend escapism in the ultra-conservative country -- apart from sitting at a seaside Starbucks chatting with Gobory about the latest films, books and the WWE -- is banging on drums and perfecting vocals for his "melodic death metal" band Wasted Land.

Over the past 14 years, the band has played in bars in Egypt, Dubai and Bahrain, but in Jeddah their performances are confined to private homes or residential compounds housing foreigners.

"We struggled through so many things," Mujallid said, noting accusations of "devil worshiping" and other stereotypes that made it hard just to practice. "It's the era we used to live with; but now with the changes we will do, inshallah -- fine."

The sweeping changes across Saudi Arabia Mujallid's referring to are, in part, intended to cater to its entertainment-starved 32 million citizens -- 65 percent of whom are under 30 and looking for outlets other than the excess of new shopping malls.

Though the country is not quite ready for death metal, the long-term deal the Saudi government signed indicates they're ready for The Undertaker.

This push toward more Western-style entertainment and culture does not, as it would have in the past, exclude women. Also along for the trip to the Greatest Royal Rumble was Gobory's 10-year-old daughter Noor, part of the first-ever wave of women to watch professional wrestling in the country.

"I consider my daughter a friend," Gobory said. "I take her everywhere with me."

Women and young girls, who for decades have been held back from making anything resembling social progress in Saudi Arabia, attended the Greatest Royal Rumble in droves -- wearing WWE caps, carrying signs and generally having a great time at the sold-out, 62,000-plus-capacity King Abdullah Sports City Stadium. Saudi women, who were given the right to attend stadium events in January for the first time -- an act that previously would have led to arrest -- even worked the event as ushers.

The WWE signed a 10-year deal with the Saudi General Sports Authority as part of a larger effort aimed at bringing Western entertainment and sporting events into the kingdom. It marks a tide of much-welcomed change led by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The pace of change in Saudi Arabia of late would have been almost unthinkable under previous regimes,

During the past few months, the country opened its first movie theatre in 35 years, held concerts that included the rapper Nelly, and signed a deal with Cirque du Soleil. The PGA's European Tour is set to make its Saudi debut in 2019.

The golfers will be hard pressed, however, to match the fervor generated by The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar and John Cena in Jeddah.

"They're looking to open up to the outside world and a very big way of doing that is WWE," said Paul "Triple H" Levesque, the WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events and creative, who also performed in the show's opening match.

Levesque confirmed the 10-year deal between Saudi Arabia and the WWE, which he said is about "changing the world's perception."

In their relationship with the WWE, the Saudi Arabian government sees a massive opportunity.

"Sports is an amazing, powerful tool to work on social-change issues," said Dr. Heidi Al-Askari, a managing director at the General Sports Authority.

While they were in Saudi Arabia, Al-Askari organized trips for WWE stars to visit children with special needs, as well as those from lower-income families, so that the wrestlers "had an opportunity to learn more about our community, our culture and to connect with the marginalized groups."

'A natural progression'

Adjusting to cultural sensitivity is something the WWE is used to, said Levesque, shrugging off the inability to unwind with a post-match beer in a country where alcohol is banned.

The event itself, which began with the Saudi and American anthems, had several unique elements compared to a typical WWE show, like matches timed to stop for the Muslim call to prayer, and outdoor air conditioners keeping those in the VIP section cool.

In keeping with Saudi customs, men unaccompanied by women were seated apart from the mixed "family sections" scattered around the stadium.

"The WWE is a global company. We average nine to 10 live events somewhere in the world every single week," Levesque said, adding that the company has staged roughly 40 previous events in the region. "You have to work within the country that you're in and their beliefs and their laws. That's what we do here."

Part of that adjustment was leaving women wrestlers, including Levesque's wife, Stephanie McMahon, and her on-screen nemesis Ronda Rousey -- one of the WWE's highest-profile signings in recent memory -- at home, at least in this instance. That decision, which was highly scrutinized, was seemingly not a simple one for the WWE to make. During a time when the women's evolution is an ongoing focus for the company, having some of their brightest stars at home painted a different picture.

"We're moving very quickly, but there is a natural progression to things so that we don't go overboard," Al-Askari said. "There is [cultural sensitivity] to costumes, and contact sport [among women] and all this stuff."

As far as the future, allowing women wrestlers to take part in events at some point is not out of the question. "There are all kinds of possibilities out there," Al-Askari said, "but for now we're doing what's appropriate for us and our culture."

Levesque defended the WWE's position, pointing to the first-ever WWE women's match in Abu Dhabi as an example of how progress can be made in time.

"You can't dictate to places their customs, but you can help to make change," he said. "To be honest, I hope that our women are here in a prominent position [like] they are in every other place in the world."

A technical malfunction allowed those in attendance to get an unexpected taste of what hosting the likes of Sasha Banks, Naomi and Carmella may be like when a promo featuring the scantily clad wrestlers aired for a few seconds on the giant screens throughout the stadium.

Although sounds of men cheering wildly could be heard on social media, the General Sports Authority was not amused. It issued a statement condemning the "indecent" footage, which it says went "against the community's values."

On this night, though there were no women performing in the ring, there was a strong presence and representation of women taking advantage of this first-ever opportunity in Saudi Arabia.

Modia Batterjee attended the Royal Rumble with her teenage daughter and son, as well as an 8-year-old nephew, and stuck it out for the entire five hours until the moment Braun Strowman was finally crowned the winner of the Greatest Royal Rumble match.

The 45-year-old entrepreneur and radio show host grew up watching the WWE in Jeddah with her family during the 1980s, only because the city was close enough to nearby Egypt to pick up its signal on terrestrial television. These days, local cable and satellite operators broadcast WWE live throughout the Gulf states.

"It was really the only entertainment available," she said, adding that the country's capital, Riyadh, was not afforded even that much at the time.

Beyond the thousands of children -- and more than a few adults -- who showed up in costumes of their favorite wrestlers and howled at each body blow, was a sense that there was more going on than just pro wrestling.

"To me, going to the WWE is not about being a fan, it's the history that it's making," Batterjee said.

The sight of Saudi women in abayas donning WWE caps and carrying banners was unusual -- and unprecedented. Dozens sat together unaccompanied by men, something that felt impossible until just a few months ago.

The changes that allowed for their attendance at the Greatest Royal Rumble, which also has many on the path to driving a car for the first time, will also allow women to witness their first live soccer matches.

Groups of women will be on flights to cheer the Saudi team at the World Cup in Russia this summer, Al-Askari confirmed, though, for now, only with the necessary signature from a male guardian required to travel overseas.

Saudi Arabia practices male guardianship laws that make it necessary for a woman to get a man's approval for basic rights, including applying for a passport, getting married, or even holding a job, according to Human Rights Watch.

Changing that law will be the next shoe to drop, said Dr. Alanoud Al-Sharekh, a women's rights activist and gender studies researcher at the London Middle East Institute, calling it "the next natural step" for the country.

By showcasing mixed high-profile events like The Greatest Royal Rumble, the Saudi government is, she said, "emboldening women from all different social classes to say to their [male] guardians 'This is the new Saudi now.'"

Al-Sharekh, who often visits relatives in Saudi Arabia, notes that women are cropping up in senior leadership positions across businesses and government -- including the board of the world's largest oil company, Saudi Aramco -- a change that will require travel freedom.

"If you do something like that, then how can you say she needs her guardian's permission to travel?" she said.

Based on recent comments made by Prince Mohammed that disassociated guardianship laws from Islam, lifting those restrictions is an ongoing discussion in Saudi Arabia.

"It doesn't go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad," he told The Atlantic in April. "In the 1960s women didn't travel with male guardians. But it happens now, and we want to move on it and figure out a way to treat this that doesn't harm families and doesn't harm the culture."

"Saudi women are very empowered and very capable," Batterjee added. "We were able to function fully and manage our families fully without having any kind of independent mobility. That's resilience."

She plans to convert an overseas driver's license and get behind the wheel of her dad's Mercedes when the law takes effect in June.

Politics and hope

Politics even came into play Friday night when a group of four local finalists in WWE's talent search in the region battled the Daivari Brothers, who entered the ring waving a large Iranian flag and spouting the rhetoric of their motherland.

The brothers -- who were born in Minnesota -- were received with loud boos before being tossed out of the ring by the Saudis. It was an unnecessary spectacle, Gobory said.

"I disliked the idea of involving a certain country [to] show the whole world that its name, flag and citizens were targeted," he said, calling it "the biggest fail" of an otherwise successful evening.

Ariya Daivari might agree with him.

Three days after the show, he said he received death threats, which prompted a tweet clarifying that he "portrayed a fictional character" who did not reflect his "personal views."

"Unfortunately some people took offense to this despite it being pure entertainment," he added.

Growing pains

Nearly two years to the day since Prince Mohammed's Vision 2030 plan to diversify Saudi's economy was unveiled, his reforms appear to be taking shape. Inside Saudi Arabia his popularity is "massive," especially among those under 30, Batterjee said. "My [19-year-old] son is obsessed with him. They see hope, they see future, they see strength, they see leadership," she said. "We love him."

Part of Prince Mohammed's plan relies on generating revenue via tourism and entertainment like the WWE, but with new world entertainment comes new world problems.

Gobory grumbled that resellers had nabbed nearly all the available tickets on the open market, leaving diehards to scramble for what they could find. That meant paying $120 apiece for his tickets -- more than four times the face value.

There were growing pains too, as the first large-scale mixed crowd in the country faced new realities and unfamiliar situations. Gobory felt frustrated that a number of women in the stadium -- still not used to attending live events such as the Greatest Royal Rumble -- flouted basic rules like waiting in line at food stands and sitting in assigned seats.

Men, he said, were largely hesitant to confront them to avoid appearing undignified "in front of hundreds of people" or be accused of "trying something immoral."

But once all the fireworks settled and The Undertaker closed his casket on Rusev, Gobory left the real-world issues behind for the moment and focused on what mattered to him most on that night.

"For The Undertaker, yes it's worth it. Because this is my number one celebrity," he said. "No Hollywood star or actress, no musician can beat The Undertaker's magnitude inside my heart."