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Grand Prix of double standards

March 25, 2022

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix raises questions as to how seriously Formula One really takes its commitment to respecting human rights. The criticism might be loud, but the financial incentives are irresistible.

Mohammed bin Salman (center) seen during the Grand Prix Formula One of Saudi Arabia in Jiddah and Jean Todt, FIA President during the Grand Prix Formula One of Saudi Arabia
The Saudi crown prince was happy to welcome F1 to his country in DecemberImage: SONG Irwen/ATP/picture alliance

The second race of the 2022 Formula One season is to take place in Jiddah on Sunday, giving Mohammed bin Salman, who is a big F1 fan, a second opportunity to play the proud host of a Grand Prix. The controversial Saudi crown prince visibly enjoyed walking through the pit lane and starting grid at F1's premiere in the country last December, as he basked in the glory of the world's most prestigious racing series. 

"It is part of his vision 2030 whereby he wants to basically sports-wash the Saudi reputation," Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics, told DW.

"It is appalling. During a time when the whole world is focused on and how to deal with authoritarian rulers who threaten peace, we find that sport corporations are not taking any notice of the human rights record of leadership such as that in Saudi Arabia."

The 59-year-old social anthropologist is from Saudi Arabia but has long lived in London.

"The solution is to boycott these kind of events and make any kind of Western assistance and support conditional on the Saudi regime abiding by international law and international human rights, values and norms." said Al-Rasheed.

Aston Martin F1 car
Aramco has also signed on as the main sponsor of the Aston Martin teamImage: Diederik Van Ver Laan/DPPI media/picture alliance

Hundreds of millions for a positive image

With this second race, "the kingdom has now become the home of motorsports in the region," Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal was quoted as saying by the Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh on Tuesday. 

In addition to Formula One, the Dakar Rally has also been passing through the Saudi desert since 2020. Footballing highlights such as a friendly between Brazil and Argentina and the Spanish Supercup have also been held in the kingdom in recent years, as has a world heavyweight title boxing match. Most recently, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF secured an 80% majority stake in Premier League club Newcastle United for around €350 million ($385 million).

Saudi Arabia also opened its coffers for a Formula One bid, with state oil company Aramco striking a sponsorship deal with the racing series. Shortly thereafter, in January 2020, F1 organizers announced the creation of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. The Aramco deal is worth around €535 million over 10 years, according to a report published by Motorsportweek.com in April 2020. Some sources put the figure as high as €800 million. 

That's a lot of money for Formula One, which, according to rights holder Liberty Media, recorded $1.15 billion in sales in 2020. But it's mere peanuts for Aramco, which according to Fortune magazine made $110 billion in profit last year.

The Saudi flag flutters next to a F1 Grand Prix flag
Human rights groups have been critical of F1's decision to expand into Saudi Arabia Image: HOCH ZWEI/picture alliance

So, financially speaking, the partnership makes a lot of sense for F1. 

"Saudi Arabia is a very young market. There are a lot of big families, so there are a lot of young people," Christian Glosauer, economics expert for the Middle East at Germany Trade and Invest, told DW. "It is also a classic car country. The car has a very high status there." 

While much is being done to improve public transportation in the country, Glosauer doesn't see this as a viable alternative at this point.

"People in Saudi Arabia simply depend on and love their cars," he said.

No freedom of expression, thousands of civilian casualties in Yemen

The obvious financial benefit of the deal is one thing, the human rights situation in the country is another. The desert state is under authoritarian rule by the Saudi royal family. There are no elections, and any expression of opposition is severely punished. The case of blogger Raif Badawi, freed earlier this month after a decade in prison, is just one prominent example among many. Reporters Without Borders places Saudi Arabia at 170 out of 180 countries on its press freedom ranking. 

Human Rights Watch has criticized the "continuing repression of dissidents and activists and the failure to provide accountability for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in October 2018."

That's not to mention the high number of state executions, some of which are even carried out in public. While there have been laudable reforms for Saudi women, which HRW said would amount to a significant step forward when fully implemented, it also noted that women's rights activists "remained in prison or on trial for their activism."

The aftermath of an airstrike in Sanaa
Saudi Arabia supports the government's side against Houthi rebels in the ongoing Yemen warImage: Hani Al-Ansi/dpa/picture alliance

It should also not be forgotten that Saudi Arabia has been waging a bloody proxy war in neighboring Yemen since 2015, which has claimed more than 10,000 civilian lives, about a quarter of them children, according to the aid organization Save the Children. 

'Alarming news' no reason for cancellation

None of this has stopped Formula One organizers from including Saudi Arabia in its Grand Prix series. Not only that; starting in 2023, the kingdom is to host a second annual race. 

Formula One has issued a declaration of commitment to respect human rights. Among other things, it says it will "engage in meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders in relation to any issues raised as a result of our due diligence, where appropriate."

DW's request for comment on how F1 and motor sports' world governing body FIA go about raising human rights issues with their Saudi partners went unanswered.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud and Stefano Domenicali
Formula One Managing Director Stefano Domenicali, (right), sees no reason to cancel the race in JiddahImage: Hasan Bratic/picture alliance

Before the race in Jiddah, however, Formula One Managing Director Stefano Domenicali spoke out on Sky Sports. While he described the recent news of 81 people being executed in a single day in Saudi Arabia "quite alarming," he also said he saw no reason to cancel the race. On the contrary, he argued, Formula One helps give the issue "a different prominence in the news," which shines "an intense spotlight" on the abuses.

This coincides with the Saudi view. Sports Minister Al-Faisal admitted in a recent interview with Al Riyadh that there is still much to be done on the issue of human rights. At the same time, hosting major events like Formula One is important "to make our society more inclusive and diverse and to promote equality."

European Parliament: 'Strong double standards'

When Vladimir Putin's Russian forces invaded Ukraine last month, it wasn't long before F1 canceled the Sochi Grand Prix, which had been scheduled for September. However, it seems that neither Saudi Arabia's human rights record, nor the alleged war crimes being committed in Yemen with Saudi support, are not enough to prod F1 to act.

On Wednesday, 90 members of the European Parliament accused FIA and Formula One of actively promoting sports washing and displaying a "strong double standard." But this is unlikely to have a drastic effect; after all, Formula One has been perfectly at ease with this double standard for many years.

This article was originally written in German