‘Sportwashing’: Saudi to host F1 race amid human rights concerns

F1 to make its Saudi debut next year; rights activists want people to ‘consider speaking out about the human rights situation in the country’.

The Saudi race will be the third in the Middle East with Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, subject to confirmation of a 2021 calendar that has yet to be published [File: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters]

Saudi Arabia will host a Formula One (F1) grand prix next year, a move aimed at attracting well-heeled globe-trotting visitors and raising the kingdom’s profile internationally as a tourist destination.

Thursday’s announcement, by race organisers and F1, also raised concerns from human rights activists who accuse Saudi Arabia of “sportswashing” – using sport events to create a positive image.

F1 chief executive Chase Carey said the organisation was “excited to welcome Saudi Arabia” to the sport, adding that all partners and host countries are committed “to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered”.

Mercedes’s six times Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, an outspoken campaigner for equality and racial justice, said last week he needed to find out more about the Saudi situation but the sport was “a powerful platform to initiate change”.

Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al Faisal, president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, hailed the race, to be held in Jeddah, as ground-breaking.

“I firmly believe the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be the biggest sports event hosted in our country’s history and has the potential to change lives, perceptions and reach new audiences and communities like never before,” he said.

The November night race – along Jeddah’s corniche facing the Red Sea – will be the third in the Middle East with Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, subject to confirmation of a 2021 calendar that has yet to be published.

Rights group Amnesty International’s UK head of campaigns Felix Jakens said: “We would urge all F1 drivers, owners & teams to consider speaking out about the human rights situation in the country.”

He added that owners and teams need to “express solidarity with jailed human rights defenders” in the country.

On Thursday, UN experts demanded Saudi authorities for the “immediate release” of jailed Saudi women’s right activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been on a hunger strike since last week for multiple postponements of her trial.

Al-Hathloul, 31, was arrested along with about a dozen other female activists in May 2018.

Last month, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched a campaign to counter what it says has been an effort by the Saudi government to spend billions of dollars hosting major events as “a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator”.

It has also described China and Saudi Arabia as “two of the world’s most abusive governments”.

Earlier this year, dozens of nations condemned Saudi Arabia over serious rights violations and demanded accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

There are also various allegations of serious rights violations in Saudi Arabia, including reports of torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances and HRW noted the Saudi-led coalition also continues to commit war crimes against civilians in Yemen.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies