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Saudi entertainment plan falters after Khashoggi murder

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious 20-plus-year plan to develop a domestic live entertainment market is on the rocks following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with a high-profile WWE event on the brink on pulling out and several other Western companies moving to sever their ties with the controversial Arab kingdom.

According to wrestling journalist Robbie Fox, the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Crown Jewel event, scheduled for 2 November at Riyadh’s King Saud University Stadium (25,000-cap.), is in jeopardy, with two major WWE stars, John Cena and Daniel Bryan, refusing to travel to Saudi Arabia following the death of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident allegedly hacked to death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

Four US senators told IJR earlier this month that WWE should rethink its relationship with the kingdom as a result of the murder of Khashoggi, which Saudi Arabia denies. “This is a brazen assault on the freedom of the press and a slap in the face to the United States, if this murder occurred as it seems it did,” said Connecticut senator Chris Murphy.

Tickets for the event are not yet on sale, despite a scheduled onsale of 19 October. New Age Insiders reports Crown Jewel will likely be held in the US instead, probably in Albany, New York.

According to the Post, Khashoggi’s former employer, WWE was expected to make up to US$40 million from two Saudi shows this year, as part of a ten-year deal.

Also extricating itself from a potentially lucrative investment deal with Saudi Arabia is William Morris Agency parent Endeavor (formerly WME-IMG), which stood to make $400m by selling a 5–10% stake in the company to a Saudi investment fund, according to THR.

WWE was expected to make up to US$40 million from two Saudi shows this year

Last Monday Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel said he was “really concerned”, and “monitoring” the situation, but the agency has not yet committed to ending the relationship.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who last week announced a new US music festival, Virgin Fest, has also announced he is cutting ties with the kingdom, declaring on 11 October he is ending his advisory role to two projects connected with Saudi Vision 2030, the project to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil by developing its service sector, including tourism and entertainment.

Major players in business and finance, including Google, Uber, Ford, Viacom, JPMorgan Chase and new NEC group owner Blackstone Group, have also moved to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia by boycotting the Vision 2030-linked Future Investment Initiative (FII), an investment forum (dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert’) that began in Riyadh yesterday.

Vision 2030 – spearheaded by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – hopes to develop a media and entertainment industry in the conservative Islamic kingdom. Last September, the General Authority for Entertainment – the body tasked with driving growth in the entertainment sector – announced a US$2.7 billion fund with which it hopes to attract international partners, and said in February Saudi Arabia will host 5,000 shows in 2018, including “some of the biggest names in global music”.

With the exception of Jean-Michel Jarre, who played Riyadh for Saudi National Day on 23 September, said global names have yet to materialise, although a healthy contingent of local Arab acts have performed, mostly in Jeddah, this year. (Concerts were formerly banned as haram, or sinful, from 1988 to 2017.) A roll-out of specialist tourist visas for foreigners wishing to attend concerts and sporting events is scheduled for December.


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