Explained: Why awarding a Formula One race to Saudi Arabia is controversial

The conservative kingdom's record on human rights is poor, and critics say high-profile events allow autocratic regimes to 'sportswash' their reputations.

Formula One last week confirmed that Saudi Arabia would host its first race next year from November 26-28 at the port city of Jeddah.

While F1 has expanded its orbit to now include races in 33 countries, human rights organisations have alleged that the event has little to do with the promotion of sport in the region – and is actually part of the kingdom’s sweeping ‘sportswashing’ plan.

Activists say it’s “ironical” that a Formula One race should be held in a country where several women activists, who fought for the right of women to drive, are behind bars, and where dissent is crushed.

So, who are the women activists, and why have they been imprisoned?

As per Amnesty, 13 activists are facing trial for charges such as “contacting foreign media, activists and human rights organisations”.

Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the faces of the women’s driving rights campaign, was arrested with nine others in 2018 just months before the ban on women driving cars was lifted. Loujain’s sister Lina, a lawyer based in Brussels, said her older sibling was subjected to “torture and degradation, including sexual abuse in prison”, in a letter written to the Ladies European Tour, which is organising an event at the King Abdullah Economic City.

“The current Saudi regime uses sports to whitewash its crimes, to have a window to the West, while maintaining and even worsening women’s conditions,” Lina wrote.

The event carries a cash award of $1.5 million from the Saudi Public Investment Fund, headed by the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

When did the protest to secure the right to drive begin?

Saudi Arabia banned women from driving back in 1957, and the first public protests happened in 1990 – when around 40 women drove down a prominent street in the capital Riyadh.

Police halted the protest, and several women were later suspended by their employers. But activists kept “The Women to Drive Movement” afloat with sustained protests.

In 2007, campaigners sent a petition to the late King Abdullah, and the following year on International Women’s Day, rights activist Wajiha al-Huwaider posted a video of her behind the wheel on social media.

A similar act of “defiance” was witnessed in October 2016. Women’s rights activists posted their driving videos on YouTube to mark International Women’s Day. Some of them were arrested, and were pressured to sign pledges saying they would refrain from driving.

One of the activists was tried and sentenced to 10 lashes, according to Amnesty International. In 2013, Loujain al-Hathlou tried to spearhead a similar campaign using social media. But the Saudi government warned that the women would be dealt with “firmly and with force”. The campaign website was hacked just a day before the protest was scheduled to take place.

What is the current situation in Saudi Arabia?

According to Amnesty International, the crackdown on dissent has increased rapidly in recent times. Saudi Arabia is third on the list of countries with the most number of executions last year, as per Amnesty records. Several women activists are behind bars on charges such as contacting an international rights organisation with reports of torture and abuse. Amnesty has been trying to secure the release of 13 such activists who have been jailed for “exercising their expression of freedom”.

“Even feminism has been declared an extremist word, which is ridiculous. Women cannot speak about their rights or raise their voice for fellow women facing persecution for dissent. The bitter irony over a Saudi Grand Prix is that the very people who fought for the rights of Saudi women to be able to drive are now themselves languishing in jail – brave people like Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sada,” Amnesty UK’s head of campaigns, Felix Jakens, told The Indian Express.

What is ‘sportswashing’? Is this a new concept?

To critics who use the expression, sportswashing refers to hosting a sports event or owning a reputed sports team to improve the image of a country by attracting positive headlines.

As a concept it is not new – and was notably seen during the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (opened by Adolf Hitler) and the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina to the much more recent 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and the Sochi Winter Games in Russia.

Critics see it as essentially a public relations exercise which proves very effective. Sportspeople have a huge reach across different cultures and can draw positive headlines for countries with tarnished images.

“When we google Saudia Arabia, they don’t want us to see beheadings or bombings, but something like “Riyadh hosts a vibrant F1 Race,” Jakens said. “Sportswashing will help Saudia Arabia present themselves as a progressive, inclusive, modern country while the reality is far from it.”

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When did Saudi Arabia begin the push for its alleged sportswashing?

The country’s interest in sports grew manifold after 2016 as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic development program.

To get the wheels moving, Princess Reema Bandar al-Saud, currently Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, worked with a major American lobbying firm to set up meetings with top sports organisations like the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, World Surf League, and Formula One, according to a report in The Guardian.

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What other major events have been held in Saudi Arabia?

The country has historically frowned at “Western-influenced” sports and entertainment. But 2016 saw the kingdom change its stance as it hosted the Race of Champions (ROC) motorsport event, inked a major deal with the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and opened its doors to boxing events featuring the likes of Briton Amir Khan.

Saudi also hosted a PGA European Tour golf event in December last year, and the rematch between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua, for the unified WBA (Super), IBF, WBO and IBO heavyweight world titles.

And it is slated to host two cash-rich Ladies European Tour golf events this month.

But is this the first time that Formula One is partnering with a country accused of human rights violations?

Not really.

In 2016, Azerbaijan, a country with a “poor human rights” record according to Human Rights Watch, hosted its first Formula One race amid protests from activists.

Recently, Formula One was accused of turning a blind eye to allegations of human rights violations in Bahrain when they raced there in March 2019.

In August last year, King Hamad handed a royal pardon for 105 detainees, including activist Najah Yusuf who was imprisoned in 2017 party for her social media posts opposing Formula One races in the country.

But has anyone from the Formula One fraternity spoken up so far?

Lewis Hamilton, who has championed many social causes including the Black Lives Matter Movement, has played it safe so far.

When questioned on Saudi Arabia by reporters, the reigning champion said: “I think it is important to know exactly what the problem is before commenting on it.”

So far no driver or team owner has aired any critical views about F1’s ties with Saudi Arabia. Human rights organisations are banking on drivers like Hamilton to take a stance against F1’s Saudi Arabia ties. “If someone from F1 says ‘why are women activists who fought for driving rights still behind bars?’ it will definitely have an impact,” Jakens said.

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