Saudi sportswashing: F1


Saudi Arabia accused of sportswashing with F1 race this weekend

UPDATE: 5 December

Lewis Hamilton is reported to be concerned that his car will show the Kingspan logo, the firm that supplied a small part of the panels which burned on Grenfell Tower. Hamilton has expressed support for the residents of the tower after the major fire. However, he did not appear to say anything about the Saudi regime and their egregious human rights failings which are described below. His teams presence in Saudi is contributing significantly to the regime’s greenwashing programme.


Saudi Arabia is hosting the F1 race this weekend (5 December 2021) and a range of human rights groups have expressed alarm at this latest attempt at sportswashing by the regime. Stars like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel will be in racing both of whom claim to be supportive of LGBTQ rights. Perhaps they are not aware that same sex relations in Saudi are banned and the penalty if caught is flogging.

The human rights situation in Saudi hardly needs repeating. The introduction to the 2020 Amnesty report for the country says:

Repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly has been intensified. Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shi’a minority and online critics of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year. Grossly unfair trials continued before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) and other courts. Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Migrant workers were even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic, and thousands were arbitrarily detained in dire conditions, leading to an unknown number of deaths.

The regime likes to promote the fact that women can now drive without mentioning that those who campaigned for this freedom were imprisoned. Now released they are not allowed to speak to the press and their freedom of movement is tightly controlled.

There is a slight crumb of comfort in that there is greater media attention being paid to sportswashing and news of cases are beginning to appear in the sports pages. In response to criticisms a spokesman for F1 said:

We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence. For decades Formula One has worked hard be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits. Sports like Formula One are uniquely positioned to cross borders and cultures to bring countries and communities together to share the passion and excitement of incredible competition and achievement.

‘For decades’ is key here since the situation in Saudi has not improved. The extent of its ‘positive force’ as it puts it is hard to discern and is not explained.

Historically, regimes like USSR and East Germany used sporting prowess to promote their credibility: who could forget stars like Olga Korbut for example? Today, Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to import sporting events to promote the myth that it is a reformed state. Their recent investment in Newcastle United is also part of this campaign. They are reported to have spent £1.5bn on this activity. Human Rights Watch has suggested it might be cheaper to reform itself rather than spend a fortune on sportswashing.

Might things change? The resolute action by the Women’s Tennis Association in relation to the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is perhaps an encouraging sign. Peng wrote about the abuse she sustained from a senior Chinese official and has all but disappeared. Only the IOC seems keen of maintaining the myth that she is free to live her life. The WTA on the other hand has received considerable support for its action.

Sources: Newsweek, BBC, Human Rights Watch, Wikipedia, Guardian.

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