Human rights group say Saudi Arabian GP would help state ‘sportswashing’

F1 in talks with gulf state with new track near Riyadh to be ready to host races by 2023

Mercedes’ driver Valtteri Bottas in action during the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix. Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty

Mercedes’ driver Valtteri Bottas in action during the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix. Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty

 

Plans to stage a Formula One grand prix in Saudi Arabia would serve only to further the gulf state’s process of “sportswashing” and help legitimise the country’s repressive regime, according to Human Rights Watch.

Proposals for a new Qiddiya circuit outside the capital Riyadh were unveiled in recent weeks and the track could be ready to host a race in 2023. F1 is in talks with Saudi Arabia but will not make any comment on the proposed race. That the track, designed by the former F1 driver Alex Wurz to FIA Grade 1 standards, is being built suggests that a deal is not far off.

Saudi Arabia already hosts a round of Formula E and the gulf kingdom has been significantly stepping up its sporting ventures of late.

The world heavyweight bout between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr in December was staged in a purpose-built arena near the capital, the Spanish Super Cup was held at the 62,000-capacity King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jeddah and next month the world’s richest horse race, the $20 million (€18m) Saudi Cup, will be staged. The state’s sovereign wealth fund is also reported to be in “advanced” talks for a £340m (€396m) takeover of the Premier League club Newcastle United.

Against a backdrop of increased investment in sport, Saudi Arabia has a human rights record described by Amnesty International as “heinous” and the Human Rights Watch director, Minky Worden, insisted that F1 needed to seriously consider its position.

“There is no evidence that F1 going to a place that seriously represses human rights has improved conditions there,” she said. “On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that F1’s presence has degraded human rights conditions and worsened conditions.”

Formula One has already received considerable criticism for racing in Bahrain and Azerbaijan. “From our research on the ground in Bahrain and Azerbaijan, the arrival of F1 led to abuses and did not help the human rights conditions,” Worden said. “There is quite a bit of evidence that F1 has ignored its own human rights commitment [made in 1995]by going to these countries and overlooked human rights abuses and taken no action to make them better.”

Anthoy Joshua’s rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr took place in Riyadh. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty
Anthoy Joshua’s rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr took place in Riyadh. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty

A spokesman for F1, however, defended the sport’s record. “For decades Formula One has worked hard to bring a positive imprint to everywhere it races including economic, social and cultural benefits,” a statement read. “We take our human rights responsibilities very seriously and make this position clear to every race promoter and host country. We believe that working with countries and giving their citizens to chance to attend global sports and entertainment events is a force for good.”

In recent years Saudi Arabia has made reforms, allowing women to drive and easing the strict and discriminatory male guardianship laws and much publicity was generated by the Saudi woman Aseel Al-Hamad driving a Renault F1 car at the French Grand Prix weekend in 2018. What was not publicised, however, was that some of the activists who worked to campaign to allow women to drive remain imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

“There are real reforms and HRW acknowledges those but they also mask ongoing repression and major sports events also mask ongoing repression,” said Worden. “F1 should not be making any deal with Saudi Arabia until they have sat down with women’s rights activists who are imprisoned and have been tortured in detention.

“F1, as part of their inspection visit, should ask to visit these women – Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi , Nassima al-Sadah and Nouf Abdulaziz – and ask for their release.”

In December, Rory McIlroy declined to take part in the European Tour golf event, the Saudi International, set to take place at the end of this month, citing a “morality” guiding his decision.

Race hosting fees are one of the three biggest sources of revenue for F1 but recent new deals with European circuits such as Spa in Belgium and Britain’s Silverstone have been granted reduced rates to ensure they remain on the F1 calendar. The reported $50m (€45m) fee for Saudi Arabia to host a race would represent a major return to cover financial shortfalls elsewhere.

F1 is also believed to be close to concluding a global sponsorship deal with the state-owned Saudi oil company Aramco, worth a reported £50m (€58m) a year. In a report made last year by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute, Aramco was named as the company at the head of a list naming the firms responsible for the highest emissions from fossil fuels since 1965. F1 recently made a commitment to going carbon neutral by 2030, including attempting to decrease its use of fossil fuels .

Worden warned, however, that operating in Saudi Arabia carried import beyond finance. “F1 needs to ask itself whether the murder and dismemberment of [the Washington Post journalist] Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents is consistent with the values of press freedom,” she said. “It is a straightforward issue because Saudi Arabia has admitted to the murder.”

Saudi authorities were approached by the Guardian for this article but declined to comment. – Guardian

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