WWE can't avoid controversy in foray into Saudi Arabia

The professional wrestling powerhouse did not have women compete.

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the powerhouse in professional wrestling, brought its brand of scripted combat to Saudi Arabia on Friday -- but despite the glitzy production it wasn't without controversy.

The event was held at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and sold out the 60,000-plus seat venue, according to the WWE. The WWE was making its second visit to Saudi Arabia, but it was the first televised event from the kingdom. The heavily promoted show was live on the WWE Network at noon Eastern time.

The promotion made its first visit to Saudi Arabia in a less-heralded event in 2014.

The event was sponsored by -- and entirely funded by -- the Saudi General Sports Authority, according to multiple reports. WWE has not answered questions about how much it was paid to throw the event, the first in a long-term deal with the country, but as a public company details will be available on its second quarter report.

Unlike 2014, women were allowed to attend the "Greatest Royal Rumble" event -- but WWE's women wrestlers were left at home.

The move generated anger from WWE fans, especially since the company has repeatedly pushed its self-titled "women's revolution."

Stars like Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and the newly signed Ronda Rousey, were left to watch from the states.

"You can't dictate to a country or a religion about how they handle things, but having said that, WWE is at the forefront of a women's evolution in the world and what you can't do is affect change anywhere by staying away from it," Paul Levesque, WWE's executive vice president of Talent, Live Events and Creative, told U.K. newspaper The Independent in an exclusive interview this week. "While, right now, women are not competing in the event, we have had discussions about that and we believe and hope that, in the next few years they will be. That is a significant cultural shift in Saudi Arabia."

Many of the women employed by WWE tweeted they were watching from home. Banks, real name Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado, tweeted "one day" while watching the event, and Natalya, real name Natalie Neidhart, and Becky Lynch, real name Rebecca Quin, both tweeted they were watching while working out.

Zayn started a campaign called "Sami for Syria" in 2017 and has raised over $96,000 for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) Foundation, which provides a mobile medical clinic for Syrians. Zayn speaks fluent Arabic and has been used by the WWE in the past to promote events in the Middle East.

Of Zayn staying at home, the WWE told the Wrestling Observer in a statement Friday, "WWE is committed to embracing individuals from all backgrounds while respecting local customs and cultural differences around the world."

The five-hour event was capped by a celebration in the ring from Braun Strowman, the 6-foot-8, 385-pound winner of the 50-man royal rumble.