Formula One bosses continue to bury their heads in increasingly bloodstained sand


Show caption Yemeni rebels said they attacked an oil facility close to the Formula One circuit in Jeddah. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images Formula One bosses continue to bury their heads in increasingly bloodstained sand Giles Richards With the Saudi Arabian GP set to take place despite the missile attack in Jeddah, sportwashing has dominated the pre-race talk @giles_richards Sat 26 Mar 2022 15.29 GMT Share on Facebook

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The show, it seems, must go on as Formula One once more contorts itself to ensure Saudi Arabia enjoys its day in the sun, missile attacks notwithstanding. The evidence of Friday’s explosion, less than 10 miles from the circuit in Jeddah, is still writ large. The pall of black smoke hangs across the city, a suitably indelible stain on the regime’s latest attempt at sportswashing.

As things stand the race will go ahead on Sunday after Yemen’s Houthi rebels struck an oil facility with a missile. The harsh truth of the Saudi-led coalition’s war with the rebels burst F1’s bubble of belief that they operate in a vacuum where sport and politics simply do not mix.

It is a transparent fiction laid bare every time they visit this state and others on the calendar. Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings – and that is a generous description – are well known. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the state’s “brutal crackdown on peaceful dissidents” since Mohammed bin-Salman was appointed crown prince.

They cite the regular use of torture on detainees. Same-sex relations remain illegal, punishable by flogging or imprisonment. The state has made much play of how “progressive” it has been in allowing women the right to drive. However, HRW reports some prominent activists spent nearly three years in prison for peacefully protesting for that right. They remain under suspended sentences, banned from travel and prohibited from pursuing their human rights work.

All of which F1 was more than aware when they first agreed to race in Saudi Arabia last year but they were reminded in no uncertain terms of exactly with whom they were dealing just days before arriving in the country. On 12 March, the state executed 81 men in a single day.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, reported the UN believed that of the 81 convicted of “terror offences”, 41 were from the Shia minority who had taken part in anti-government protests, calling for greater political participation. The human rights group, Reprieve, reports a further 16 people have been killed since that mass execution.

Saudi Arabia talks of hosting the race with the hope of “changing perceptions”, in itself an admission of how badly it needs to reform its deservedly grotesque image.

HRW has also reported that in its seven-year war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has “a sordid record of unlawful attacks, targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in areas held by the Houthi armed group”. Let it be noted that F1 acted with unprecedented speed to cancel the Russian GP within hours of their invasion of Ukraine yet has not batted an eyelid to what is happening in Yemen.

Lewis Hamilton has spoken out about similar controversies in the past. Photograph: Antonin Vincent/Shutterstock

F1’s repeated refrain when called to answer such criticism is that they believe they can effect positive change in the countries they visit. Nelson Mandela held the opposite opinion in believing how important the sporting boycott was in helping end apartheid in South Africa. Worse still, there is no evidence any change ever occurs.

Since the mass protests in Bahrain in 2011, F1 has raced on in the country and human rights groups insist the situation has worsened for everyone who speaks out against the regime and that imprisonment and torture has, in fact, increased.

Should anyone be in any doubt as to what this means it was spelled out unequivocally on Friday by Felix Jakens of Amnesty International. “This weekend’s Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia is sportswashing – plain and simple,” he said. “Despite the promises of reform, human rights violations in Saudi are going from bad to worse. Dissent and free expression are now virtually non-existent.

“Much of the world’s attention is currently focused on Ukraine, but the world of sport must not limit its conscience to one conflict. Saudi Arabia must not be allowed a free pass over its continued bombing of civilians in Yemen.”

So why is F1 in Saudi Arabia? In 2020 at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a day before the Australian GP was ultimately cancelled, Lewis Hamilton was the only driver to openly state he thought a mass gathering of more than 100,000 people was a bad idea. When asked why he thought F1 and the FIA were ploughing on with the race, his answer was simple and scathingly accurate: “Cash is king” he said.

F1’s 10-year deal to host the race in Saudi Arabia is worth a reported $900m, while the Saudi state-owned oil company, Aramco, is an F1 “global partner” in a contract worth a reported $450m, again over 10 years.

With the deals done, last year the then FIA president, Jean Todt, and F1’s CEO, Stefano Domenicali, were happy to be pictured with beaming grins on the grid with bin-Salman – the man US intelligence agencies identified as having approved the 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The real danger with sportwashing is that it normalises regimes over time. The fuss dies down as people come to accept the event but business as usual continues in the background. This is the deal F1 has done.

In this brave new world the sport’s leadership is wolfing down petro-dollar-funded soma to blunt the reality that they are burying their heads in increasingly bloodstained sand.