Why Pro Wrestling Is Perfect for the Modern Middle East

It’s safer than sex.

Courtesy WWE, Inc.
Courtesy WWE, Inc.

DOHA, Qatar — Avoiding a people’s elbow or tombstone piledriver in a flowing white thobe and leather sandals is about as difficult as it sounds, so Qataris leave that to the spandex-clad professionals. It’s a pleasant February night in Doha — the weather merciful enough to allow aggression — and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE Raw) actors John Cena, Ryback, and CM Punk are pummeling each other before a crowd of a few thousand in an outdoor arena.

The throng features a mixture of South Asians, Westerners, and Arabs, many local. Qatari women, some with all but their eyes covered in black fabric, join husbands sporting Rolex watches and Muslim prayer beads to cheer on the hulking actor-athletes. The crowd knows all the charlatans’ catchphrases, such as Ryback’s chant: "Feed. Me. More."

Qatar is a conservative, Wahhabi-leaning country where alcohol consumption is illegal for citizens and Internet filters block pornography. Violent media content, however, is widely consumed and seemingly uncontested — a trend that permeates the broader Arab world. While sexual media is censored — the WWE show in Doha featured none of the dancing women seen at other venues — images of combat are ubiquitous.

Some pan-Arab networks, like those in the Dubai-based MBC conglomerate, routinely broadcast reruns of professional wrestling matches, and slasher films like Saw and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 occasionally air during prime time across the Arab world. Unlike in the United States, expletives are typically uncensored. An oft-run commercial in Arab countries for the 2013 Oscars, for instance, featured an actor dropping the f-bomb in an acceptance speech.

Big-budget action movies from Hollywood are usually offered at cinemas across the Middle East, albeit with kissing and sex scenes deleted. As of this writing, Texas Chainsaw 3D and Bullet to the Head — both rated R in the United States — are airing in Doha, and it’s not uncommon to see young children filing toward their glowing salons.

Likewise, Bruce Willis’s Die Hard empire has been highly lucrative in the Arab world. In February, A Good Day to Die Hard opened in Doha, Cairo, Jerusalem, Dubai, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Amman, and Manama.

The latest James Bond flick, Skyfall, aired across the Arab world, featuring a series of gruesome stabbings and shootings, but none of the signature 007 trysts, which were cut out in large chunks. At one point in the film, Bond is preparing to make nice with a woman at a hotel when, all of a sudden, he appears on a yacht headed to shore. Likewise, references to homosexuality in Western entertainment are almost always withheld from Arab audiences.

Small Arab countries like Qatar don’t necessarily censor major international blockbusters for intimacy directly; such films can be censored when Arabic subtitles are added prior to distribution across the Arab world. Similarly, before some Western television programs and movies are beamed out of Dubai, they are scrubbed of sexual content for distribution across the Greater Middle East. It’s not entirely clear, though, whether Arab governments demand specific changes or production firms self-censor to get their films distributed quickly across the Middle East.

Then there’s the world of digital entertainment. Violent video games like Call of Duty are hugely popular in Arab countries, as are combat games produced in nearby Jordan and Iran. The Middle East is the world’s fastest-growing theater for digital video games, a trend likely to continue, given the region’s low median age and surging rates of mobile-phone ownership, according to Reuters. Qatar has more cell phones per person — upwards of three — than any country on Earth.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Arab world’s love of action bleeds over into its news media. Leading Arabic media organizations like Al Jazeera typically run more-graphic images than their U.S. counterparts, a tendency that contributes to the perception in the United States that the network lacks restraint.

To some extent, the difference may be explained by the region’s more intimate experience with war. Al Jazeera’s audience has simply grown to expect a franker presentation of suffering — a trend that goes for the viewership of other major Arabic networks like Al Arabiya, owned by members of the Saudi royal family.

"[P]eople in the Arab world see themselves suffering as a consequence of these ongoing wars and conflicts, and therefore feel that such acts should be reported through all types of media," Shahira Fahmy, a journalism professor at the University of Arizona, explained in an email. "The Arab audience identifies with what goes on in the region in general."

Some Arabic news outlets in the region are outright militant, like Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and Hamas’s al-Aqsa network, which advocate armed resistance against foes and have in the past featured combat-training videos. Most mainstream Arabic news outlets, though, assume formats that resemble CNN or BSkyB, but worry less about shocking audiences with blunt images.

Violent media in Arab countries, as anywhere, are big business. In February, in addition to the violent WWE charades, World Cup champion Spain played Uruguay in Doha, and Victoria Azarenka beat Serena Williams to win the Qatar Open. Ticket prices for these less violent events, however, highlight residents’ preference for blood sport. Modest seats for Williams’s championship match and the Spain-Uruguay friendly cost U.S. $18 and $41, respectively, while the cheapest WWE Raw seat drew $96. A ringside seat for two nights of WWE Raw cost a whopping $824, currently more than tickets to any "sports" event in the country.

The Qatari government’s Tourism Authority was the primary sponsor of the WWE event, part of the country’s strategy to promote economic growth through sports and entertainment. That strategy, in part, hinges on attracting viewers from more abstemious parts of the Persian Gulf.

One such viewer, a 25-year-old Saudi named Emad Allari, told me he flew in from Riyadh, where WWE shows, like movie theaters, are banned. "I’m a big fan," he said. "Watching WWE is the reason why I love to do bodybuilding now." Last year, he flew to Abu Dhabi for a three-day WWE show there.

There are some exceptions to the pro-violence, anti-skin partiality in Arab media markets.

Turkish social dramas, dubbed into Arabic, are wildly popular across the region, replacing some of the Western adrenaline and explosives during Arab prime time. Arab music video channels feature gyrating sirens with plenty of curves and V-lines, and flaunty magazines like Vogue are popular across the Middle East. The pageantry of Bollywood love stories is devoured by Arab consumers. Racy comedy can occasionally be found in the region too; edgy comedian Chris Tucker performed at the Doha Sheraton in early March, and some Qatari women covered in black abayas heard jokes on topics like marijuana and sexual technique.

Sexuality is not so different in Arab countries than in other parts of the world. I once asked a deliveryman in Egypt, who hauled anything to Cairenes’ doorsteps that would fit on a moped, what he delivered to people’s houses most frequently. "Condoms and Viagra," he said. "Mostly ordered by women."

At the time, Viagra was available in Egypt without a prescription, and this driver was moving a lot of it. The little blue stimulant was delivered so frequently, though, because many Egyptians are not so comfortable discussing sexuality in a publ
ic setting.

When some of these same consumers desire a violent video game or horror film to spice up a weekend, no need for delivery; they just head to the souk.

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