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  • Writer's pictureCastor Chan

Why the Saudi Arabia GP isn’t the Best Idea

The proposed Jeddah street circuit promises to be an exciting night race, but there are a host of underlying issues with its country. For 2020, F1 unveiled a new slogan and campaign: “We Race As One”. This initiative had a dual purpose: to fight COVID-19 (after an unprecedented delay to the season) and to stand against inequality and racism. And as F1 has stated, “it will not be a one week or one-year theme that disappears as issues disappear from headlines, it will underpin the Formula 1 strategy to make a tangible difference in our sport and society.” There is no denying that awareness is being promoted through and beyond the paddock. Lewis Hamilton led a powerful charge against racism in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement this year, McLaren has partnered with Mind, a charity for mental health, and an official partnership has been announced between F1 and the W Series, a female single-seater championship. Yet in contrast to that, the deal they have made with Saudi Arabia (reportedly a ten-year contract) they have developed doesn’t quite reflect the values they wish to promote. This is not the first time F1 has held a race in a country with dubious human rights values either, with concerns raised against the Azerbaijan and Bahrain Grands Prix in 2016 and 2019 respectively.

According to the Human Rights Watch’s 2020 World Report, Saudi Arabia remains a country with significant issues. In addition to the controversy two years ago over the murder of a journalist named Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has an unsavoury track record with dangerous military operations, their strict stance on criminal justice and human rights, and gender discrimination. That last factor in particular comes in contrast to F1’s recent partnership with the W Series and to a statement made by Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal (head of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation) about them being open to hosting one of the support races. There have been numerous sporting events held in recent years, some being Formula E, football and boxing matches, leading to calls of “sports washing”. As Amnesty UK’s head of campaigns Felix Jakens said, “With critics of the government either jailed, exiled or hounded into silence, the Saudi authorities have pursued a twin-track approach of crushing human rights while throwing large amounts of money at glittering sporting events.”

In addition to the human rights issues, F1 has signed a sponsorship agreement with Saudi Aramco. This will make them one of F1’s Global Partners along with names like Rolex and Pirelli. But this partnership with “the world’s biggest polluter”, as revealed in a study by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute, seems to be a juxtaposition of F1’s goal to have a net zero carbon footprint by 2030. F1 claims that this deal will allow for the research and development of sustainable fuels, but after the controversy on the now-scrapped building of a new Brazilian track, involving the razing of part of the Camboatá forest, the sponsorship has been pictured in a dubious light in the media and in the fans’ eyes.

Some have argued that big sports matches can actually bring attention and action to such issues. Furthermore, as a global sport and championship, F1 has an obligation to feature a range of host countries. Yet that only serves to prompt the question: why were we ignorant of these problems before? And why does it take sports for us to take action on basic human rights? Of course, any positive change the race prompts is welcome, but for Liberty Media to partner and support a country with such a problematic system against the values they publicly promote is reprehensible. The fact that they likely did so to gain money they lost during the pandemic while claiming to be in the fight against COVID-19 only exacerbates that.

In all, there has been a generally negative reaction to the Saudi Arabia GP. With a ten-year deal, their sponsorship deal with Saudi Aramco (a gas and oil corporation) and plans for a new track in Qiddiya, we are probably in for the long-haul. But this could be an opportunity to take action. Hopefully, with this sort of global attention and influence, F1 will take advantage and make a change for the better in accordance with their inclusivity campaigns.


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Reference to F1’s statement on human rights:

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