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.

Sportswash and Grand Prix racing


Bahrain Grand Prix puts motor sport in the spotlight again

Listen to the podcast of this post.

One of the countries which consistently ignores human rights is the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Gulf. The list of infractions is rather long: trials are unfair and confessions extracted using torture; there is no freedom of speech and the last independent newspaper was closed three years ago; women do not have equal rights; the death penalty has been reintroduced and prison conditions are exceedingly poor. Reports by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations set these out in some detail.

The UN report notes:

The Committee is concerned about reports that acts of torture and ill‑treatment are often committed by law enforcement officials, including as a means of eliciting confessions, that, despite the prohibition in domestic law, confessions obtained under duress have been used as evidence in court and that allegations made by defendants in this respect have not been adequately investigated. The Committee is also concerned about reports of torture in prisons, particularly in the Jau prison. It notes with concern the lack of information on investigations carried out and convictions handed down vis-à-vis the number of complaints of torture and ill-treatment (arts. 2, 6, 7 and 14).

United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner 2017

For some years, human rights groups have asked FIA, the Grand Prix organisation to adopt human rights policies but it’s website does not appear to have any such policy.

The Formula One champion, Lewis Hamilton, has spoken out about the human rights situation in Bahrain prior to the race starting tomorrow (28 March 2021). He said:

I don’t think we should be going to these countries and ignoring what is happening in those places, arriving, having a good time and then leave. Human rights I don’t think, should be a political issue. We all deserve equal rights.

Jerome Pigmire, AP, 25 March 2021

He went on to say that he had hoped to speak to the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa after last year’s race. His answer is a little oblique explaining that such matters were best addressed in private without clarifying whether he had or not. In any event, this is progress and for a prominent driver to be highlighting this issue when the governing body itself seems unconcerned is encouraging. Apparently, Hamilton received letters from three survivors of torture in Bahrain giving details of extreme beatings and sexual abuse. This led him to try and educate himself into what was happening there which has included speaking to Amnesty International.

The Kingdom denies denies claims of human rights abuses saying that ‘[the] promotion and protection of human rights [are] an essential part of the Kingdom’s strategy in developing state institutions and national legislation.’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Bahrain.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy have asked the new F1 CEO Stefan Domenicali to establish a commission of independent experts to investigate the human rights impact of F1’s activities in Bahrain (27 March).

Sport is about money. Despotic regimes have deep pockets with which to host international sporting events such as motor racing, football, boxing or golf. Few questions are asked and the sports pages of newspapers are full of action photos and breathless prose about these events. They rarely sully their coverage with information about the gross human rights infringements, torture and executions taking place in the host country. Blind eyes are turned.

But maybe things are beginning to change. Sporting heroes have huge followings sometimes from people who may not pay too much attention to politics. Perhaps Marcus Rashford and Lewis Hamilton are early examples of greater awareness by sporting stars of what is going on around them. Whereas human rights activists can be safely ignored by politicians, these stars with their huge followings, cannot be.

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