Formula 1 in Saudi


Can nothing stop the F1 circus?

Despite the enormous scale of death and destruction taking in place in Yemen by Saudi Arabia, the F1 Grand Prix still took place there (Saudi).  The Saudi regime is desperately keen to use sport as a means to whitewash its appalling human rights record.  Not only is it causing misery in Yemen but it has recently executed 81 people in a single day in Saudi itself almost certainly after torture was used to extract confessions.  Executions are usually carried out by beheading. 

There was a time when sport was confined to the back pages of newspapers or at the end of news bulletins.  It was about sport itself with reports of competitions, league tables or medals won.  The use of sport to promote nations has a long history and in recent times we have seen enormous sums spent by regimes to secure medals at the Olympics.  Recently, the notion of ‘sports washing’ has become established with Saudi Arabia a prominent player.  In addition to boxing promotions, golf and Formula 1, it has poured a huge sum into Newcastle United football club

A recent edition of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, CAAT, newsletter (Issue 262) provides an update on the destruction in Yemen.  In November, the UN estimated that 377,000 will have died.  This would be the total to the end of 2021.  Unfortunately, they say, ‘the escalating death toll and overwhelming evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian law have done little to curb the arms dealers: to them it represent a business opportunity’.  Since the bombing of Yemen began in 2015, the value of UK sales to Saudi Arabia amounts to £20 billion.  Further details and background can be found on the Mwatana site.

CAAT reports that the UN failed to renew the mandate in October for the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen following intense lobbying of council members by the Saudi regime.

Saudi Arabia

Human rights infringements continue in the country itself.  Critics of the government or ruling family are routinely jailed.  Prejudice against women and the LGBT community is practised.  Many people are executed in barbaric fashion after wholly unsatisfactory trials.  Reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty provide further details.

No impact on F1

None of this seems to have an impact on Formula 1.  It is interesting to note however that, following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, the F1 race due to take place in Sochi this year was quickly cancelled.  It seems truly bizarre that they were able to act with great speed following the Ukraine invasion but prolonged death, destruction and egregious human rights abuses in Yemen and Saudi has not made any impression.  Could it be the considerable publicity the war has attracted and the actions being taken against Russian oligarchs meant that any attempt by F1 to carry on as usual was simply not possible?  Whereas, what is going on in Saudi and Yemen only rarely makes it onto the front pages thus enabling them to carry on with business as usual. 

Saudi is spending billions on its campaign to improve its image and holding various sporting events and some sporting authorities seem immune to what is going on.  It seems as though the lure of money – and lots of it – is too great.  They exist, as one commentator puts it, in a vacuum.  Perhaps we should not be too surprised at F1’s flimsy approach to human rights when its former boss Bernie Ecclestone was interviewed on Times Radio defending President Putin as an ‘honourable man’. 

Sources: HRW; Amnesty; Daily Express; Guardian; al Jazeera; BBC

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