Saudi Arabia just signed a deal to hold a night race from next year in Jeddah, with the promise to switch in 2023 to a new facility that is supposed to be build in Qaddiya. The addition of the Middle East kingdom generated a lot of criticism, with even Amnesty International, the human rights organisation issuing a warning statement to F1 that the country is trying to use the sport to take away attention from other issues that are currently going on there.
The head of campaigns of Amnesty International UK Felix Jakens said: “Formula 1 should realise that a Saudi Grand Prix in 2021 would be part of ongoing efforts to sportswash the country's abysmal human rights record.”
The president of the Saudi Arabian motorsport federation Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal is aware many are unhappy about the decision to include the race in Jeddah in the calendar, nut he believes it is a necessary step in the process of Saudi Arabia trying to be more open to the outside world, instead of hiding behind it’s borders. When asked about his response to the criticism from the fans, he said: “I remember myself when my parents used to tell me we're going to go to the US, especially to New York, I was frightened. I would think that I'm going to walk in the street and somebody will come and shoot me, because I'd never been there. So I know why they're not excited about it, because of a lot of issues with the human rights, and because they've never been to Saudi. So that's why, now for us opening up, and hopefully with people coming in Saudi Arabia, seeing the country, and then going back and reporting what they saw, this will make maybe people change their mind.”
Prince Khalid also said there has been similar resentment before the events like Dakar and Formula E were hosted, but people changed their opinions after seeing the races first hand. As he said: “This happened to us with Dakar, we had a lot of people...about 3000 participants and drivers came. Most of them, they had the same impression, and they were not happy. Even with Formula E, like BMW and other teams, they said, they didn't want to go to Saudi Arabia. But after they came to Saudi Arabia, and after they saw us and met us, they changed their perspective about Saudi Arabia. This is one of the issues and why we had this bad image, because we were closed, our country was closed. So part of the vision and part of opening up our country, we would like people to come and see who we really are. We don't have anything to hide. If we wanted to sportswash our image or something, then we will close our country because we will not let you come and see and meet with our people.”
Prince Khalid is well aware of the concerns over human rights, and that the matter has been discussed with F1 bosses, but he says that there needs to be some understanding about Saudi Arabia having a different culture and history than other countries. As he said: “We definitely had a conversation on that. And I know, maybe this is a thing that a lot of people talk about with Saudi Arabia, but we are not like the other countries. We know that we are different. We have our culture. There are things that people can do in other places that they can't do here. But we respect our differences, and we are opening our country to anyone.”
He added: “We don't have any discriminations, so everybody can come. If you're a man or a woman, there is no segregation. We know we're different, but we respect our differences. And it's something that we take seriously. Sport brings people together and unites them. So that's why we are hosting these events.”
In the past year or so F1 definitely engaged in a closer partnership with Saudi Arabia, due to the deal with petrochemical giant Aramco, who became one of the biggest commercial partners and even sponsored the races in Spain and Hungary this year. But Amnesty International has been petitioning against the kingdom from already a long time, and especially earlier this year after a failed takeover of the UK’s Newcastle United FC by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. On the core of the statement by Jakens was the violation of women’s rights in the country.
As we can read in the statement: "The failed attempt to buy Newcastle United obviously hasn't deterred the Saudi authorities, who apparently still see elite-level sport as a means of rebranding their severely tarnished reputation. Despite the fanfare over Saudi women finally being allowed to drive a car without being arrested, the authorities have recently locked up and tortured several leading women's rights activists - including Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sada. If a Saudi Grand Prix goes ahead, at the very least F1 should insist that all contracts contain stringent labour standards across all supply chains, and that all race events are open to everyone without discrimination. In the lead-up to a race in Jeddah, we would urge all F1 drivers, owners and teams to consider speaking out about the human rights situation in the country, including by expressing solidarity with jailed human rights defenders.”
Is pursuing such partnerships and locations really beneficial to F1? Or is it just going to further tarnish the image of the sport? There will be definitely more information coming up regarding this situation, but such criticisms should definitely give the bosses something to think about during the led up to the 2021 Saudi Arabian GP.