In December, for the first time in Formula One’s history, Saudi Arabia will host a race. Heated debates on human rights will unavoidably surround this grand prix. But will F1’s participation render positive or negative results?
Human rights advocates such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long raised concern over F1’s decision to organise races in countries with troubling human rights records. The Bahrain date on F1’s annual calendar has been mired in controversy since its conception. In 2011, the race was even cancelled due to civil unrest in the small Gulf nation.
The main stage
Simon Chadwick, Global Professor of Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School, commented that the promotion of Saudi Arabia to the F1 stage has dramatically escalated the stakes with regards to human rights.
“What Saudi Arabia does is this propels matters to a completely new level,” said Chadwick. “Bahrain and Abu Dhabi together, their total population is less than three million, whereas in Saudi Arabia you’re talking about a country of 35 million people.”
The inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be held in Jeddah on a temporary 27-corner street circuit while a new purpose-built venue is readied in the coming years.
The Jeddah track is 3.837 miles in length, making it the second-longest track on the calendar. If that were not enough the organisers also claim that it is the fastest. However, Saudi Arabia also maintains one of the worst records on human rights of any host country on the calendar.
F1 has referenced the Vision 2030 reform program pursued under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to counter concerns on human rights. A key element of the program is using sport to promote a vibrant society.
“You need to keep in mind that he [MBS] is somebody who is hugely respected by the young Saudi Arabian population,” highlighted Chadwick. “70% of the Saudi Arabian population is aged under 30, [and] they see this guy as a great reformer.
“This is a country that attracts considerable criticism, not without justification, but it is a country that is trying to change and turn outwards and become more progressive. So, I think essentially the issue is do we believe that that is going to happen.”
Critics say that allowing Saudi Arabia to host international sporting tournaments helps its rulers normalise their behaviour. The argument is that the events shift attention away from Riyadh’s well-documented rights violations.
The ban on female drivers has been lifted and women are allowed to attend sporting events. But Vision 2030 has a long way to go before making permanent systemic change. MBS is also not without controversy himself, particularly following the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
This means F1 remains under pressure to prove that it is taking the issue seriously. Something it is so far yet to do convincingly.
“It has to be clear why they [F1] are there and what contribution they are making to this agenda of change that Saudi Arabia is currently pursuing,” said Chadwick. “Unless we have clear evidence of these events making a tangible contribution to positive societal change then people will be cynical, and they will be suspicious.”
F1’s commitment to human rights includes a pledge to “focus our efforts in relation to those areas which are within our own direct influence”. But the championship has been urged by human rights groups to recognise that countries hosting grands prix fall within that responsibility.
“My view of this is whether Formula One likes it or not, it is involved,” Chadwick asserted. “We live in a world where I don’t think the sport, the business and the politics can be separated.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch remain extremely critical of MBS and the Saudi regime. Both organisations have warned F1 that they risk enabling the use of high-profile events to distract from major problems.
“I find that the work of the likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to be valuable,” said Chadwick. “But from a sporting perspective I think that they are using sport to advocate and further their own causes. And there is a part of me which feels that this is unfair.”
A positive driving force
It is certainly not the responsibility of sport alone to promote and advocate for human rights. Yet, time and again sport demonstrates an incredible ability to elevate and transform communities and societies. Could the question not be reframed more positively?
What tangible change and constructive impact is F1’s involvement in Saudi Arabia promoting? F1 should be seeking to uplift underrepresented and poorer communities. Contributing to education, employment and investment in each of its host countries could be a standard practice. Just as Extreme E is launching legacy programmes in race locations, F1 should be creating a positive legacy of its own.
F1 said in a statement last year: “For decades F1 has worked hard to be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social and cultural benefits.”
Would it not be incredible to see the W Series visit KSA, not just as a support race for F1, but as a demonstration of support for female drivers in Saudi? After all Extreme E has already raced in Al-‘Ula which saw both male and female drivers. Would this not also be a more powerful statement in support of human rights than cancelling a race?