Why Pro Wrestling Is Perfect for the Modern Middle East

It’s safer than sex.

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 public 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.

Courtesy WWE, Inc.


The Long Shadow

Venezuela’s upcoming election features a young challenger against Hugo Chávez’s appointed successor -- who’s doing everything in his power to make the race about his dead boss.

CARACAS — Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski is hoping to complete a trifecta of victories against the country's vice presidents in next month's election to choose a successor to fallen leader Hugo Chávez.

Back in 2008, Capriles upset Chávez's right hand man and former Vice President Diosdado Cabello -- now head of the national assembly -- and was elected governor of the populous state of Miranda. Last December, he bested another former vice president, Elías Jaua -- now foreign minister -- to win reelection.

Both of these were impressive victories -- the government spent heavily in hopes of ousting him -- but the third victory will undoubtedly be the toughest. Capriles, who is regarded as the opposition's best, and perhaps only, hope to retake the country's presidency, is facing acting President Nicolás Maduro, whom Chávez chose as his vice president in October. In addition to access to the substantial resources of the state, Maduro is riding high on a wave of public sympathy for Chávez, who died March 5 after a two-year bout with cancer. It's also Capriles's second presidential race in less than a year: Chávez beat him last October, though it was the closest-fought campaign of the late president's 14-year tenure. 

"The election is going to be a referendum on what kind of man, what kind of president Hugo Chávez was," said Ray Walzer, a fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "The problem for Capriles is that Venezuela is in a post-Chávez hangover now."

Polls matching Capriles and Maduro and taken before Chávez´s death showed the latter with a strong double-digit lead, ranging from 10 to 15 percentage points. However, Capriles has come out swinging this time, in marked contrast to his race last year when some advisors felt he was too deferential to the ailing president and didn't attack Chávez's policies enough. They also faulted him for not responding to Chávez's personal insults.

"Candidate Capriles is going to be much more forceful this time, more direct and questioning," said an advisor to the challenger, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Last time he was too polite, which was viewed as a weakness. This time, the gloves are off." 

Capriles has wasted no time on going on the attack since accepting the nomination from the opposition coalition front to contest the April 14 election.  He has repeatedly charged that Maduro, 50, lied to the Venezuelans about the date and circumstances of Chávez's death, to give himself more time to fortify his position. His stump speech hammers the acting president, claiming that Maduro's first 100 days in office have been a disaster, highlighted by the decision to devalue the country's currency by 32 percent.

"Nicolás has been campaigning ever since President Hugo Chávez went for his treatment," Capriles said in a meeting on March 12 with journalists. "We're already 100 days into Nicolas's government and look where our country is going. He is a bad imitation of the president." 

There is little love lost between the two men. During last year's campaign, Maduro insinuated that Capriles, who is single, was gay. Other Maduro backers have whispered that Capriles is Jewish, which he isn't.

Maduro stepped up the accusations in early March, internationalizing the dispute, when he said that Capriles had gone to the United States to conspire to overthrow the government with the collusion of U.S. intelligence agents. Capriles said the trip (he visited Miami and New York the week prior to Chávez's death) was to visit family members, and tweeted photos of himself with his nephews.

Now, and somewhat bizarrely, Maduro has accused Washington of plotting the assassination of Capriles. The government has already expelled U.S. officials and just suspended talks to improve relations between Washington and Caracas following U.S. Undersecretary of State for Latin America Roberta Jacobson's call for Venezuela to stage free and transparent elections.

Capriles makes no secret of his disdain for Maduro, constantly calling him by his first name and refusing to refer to him as president, noting that he was never elected to the position. He accuses Maduro of hiding behind Chávez's image to avoid taking blame for bad decisions.

Maduro counters by accusing Capriles of dishonoring Chávez's memory and of being disrespectful to the president's family.  (He was neither invited nor allowed to attend the funeral.) Maduro has also been careful to identify himself as "a son of Chávez," and constantly sprinkles his speeches with references to the fallen leader. He often speaks in public with a picture of Chávez in the background, looking over his shoulder, much like his old boss did with Simon Bolivar.

"Maduro isn't Chávez but then he doesn't need to be," said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office for Latin America. "He is still basking in the glow of Chávez." 

Smilde noted that Capriles needs to stop mentioning Chávez as the root of all ills, and start sharing his plans for the future. Venezuela's economy and soaring crime are the issues that resonate most with voters. Since the devaluation, prices have soared. Although the official exchange rate is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar, it was trading at 26 on the black market in the days after Chávez's death before falling back to 23.50. Basic foodstuffs such as coffee, sugar, cooking oil, corn meal, and meat -- the prices of which are set by the government -- remain scarce.

"I may be a Chavista," said Nora Alvarez, a 28-year-old housewife waiting in line outside a supermarket in Caracas. "But this is ridiculous. I am wasting four hours just to buy 4 kilograms of corn meal. We never went through this before."

Crime is also surging. Maduro said last week that he would seek to talk to the leaders of Venezuela's crime gangs to convince them put down their arms. Failing that, he said he would send in the police, national guard, and army to hunt them down. Capriles and members of the opposition ridiculed Maduro's entreaty, saying it was unrealistic to hope the gangs would voluntarily give up their life of crime.

"This election is an important one for Capriles and the opposition to get their ideas out there, to get a message to the country that they have alternative policies, and ideas for the country," said Smilde.  "Then he will be in a position in the future, when things get tough for Maduro, to offer Venezuelans a different path, a different message."

So far, however, Maduro is sticking with a simple message: I am the heir to Chávez; stick with me. Maduro's campaign literature prominently features a picture of Chávez's above the words "Maduro from the heart." Occasionally, the imitation verges on self-parody. Maduro has started singing at public appearances, just as Chávez did and has started tweeting. 

But Maduro may have lost perhaps the key prop in his election bid. It may be too late to embalm Chávez's body to have it placed on permanent display, Maduro said last weekend. The government had planned to place the former president's remains in a glass case so he could inspire future generations and influence elections.

"There are difficulties and those difficulties may make it impossible to do what they did to Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, or Mao," Maduro said.

But Maduro's backers may not need the former president's corpse to win. They are spending freely to get their message out, plastering Chávez's image in their campaign signs and advertisements. El Comandante may not be there in person but his shadow and memory still looms large.