World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) will host the Middle East's biggest ever pay-per-view event in Saudi Arabia on Friday, as it looks to capitalize on the kingdom's more open stance to foreign entertainment brands.
Last month, the wrestling giant signed a 10-year deal with Saudi Arabia. As part of that, it is staging Friday's event, called The Greatest Royal Rumble, which includes some of the biggest names in WWE, including John Cena, Triple H and The Undertaker.
"I think the Middle East, the Saudi region has always had a massive fan base. In this region, we have done 40 shows over the years and we have a massive following here," Paul Levesque, WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events and creative, told CNBC by phone on Friday. Levesque is also known as Triple H in the ring.
The Saudi deal comes at a time when the kingdom is opening up entertainment to foreign brands and also changing some long-standing laws. Women will finally be allowed to drive from June, for example, while Saudi Arabia opened its first movie theater in 35 years this month, showing Marvel's "Black Panther."
"The leaders here now are looking for change, they are looking to create a different environment, they are looking to catch up and that's why they approached WWE in that manner," Levesque said.
"When you look at this in the long-term, we will be at the forefront of that change and it will be significant in the world. "
No women on the card
WWE has been criticized for not having any of its female superstars on the fight card, despite pushing the women's division in recent years.
Levesque said this will take time and pointed to a recent in event in Abu Dhabi where two of the top female wrestlers — Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss — became the first women to compete in the United Arab Emirates.
The crowd at the event chanted "this is hope," because of the fact that women were wrestling.
"That is a story we will replicate in Saudi Arabia and it will take people time to realize that. Change takes time, it always does, it might seem when you look back it happened instantaneously, but it doesn't," Levesque said.
"If we did not think there was change we would be having different conversations."
The push in the Middle East is part of a broader expansion plan for the WWE. China and India are key markets, Levesque told CNBC in an interview last year.
This includes hiring performers from around the world. WWE recently signed Shadia Bseiso from Jordan, the first Arab woman in the company.
Levesque said there is lots of potential with the 10-year Saudi deal, including possible hiring local talent, opening a training center on the ground and producing localized content for its WWE Network streaming subscription service.
It has done similar things in Britain. Last year. for example, WWE launched the U.K. Championship.