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

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.

Saudi takeover of Newcastle football club


The news today of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is condemned by Amnesty

It was announced today (7 October 2021) that the Saudi Public Investment Fund has agreed a £300m takeover of Newcastle United Football Club. This has resurrected the argument about ‘Sportswash’ and countries with poor human rights records using sport to try and create a better image for themselves. Saudi Arabia has a particularly dire human rights record with the routine use of torture, capital punishment often by primitive means and in public, the poor treatment of women and the silencing of opposition to the regime.

The takeover has been welcomed in Newcastle and it was suggested by a reporter in the City that the fans were jubilant as it will mean the end of Mike Ashley’s ownership and the poor record by the club in the league during his time. Newcastle Chronicle has considerable coverage and photos of large numbers of jubilant fans. The newspaper describes the atmosphere as ‘electric’. On Twitter a tweet said it was about ‘returning a sense of pride’.

Newcastle is not the only football club or sport to accept money from dubious regimes so it would be unfair to single them out. Saudi’s human rights record is particularly dubious however. The list is long and includes the likely murder and dismemberment by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi, the repression of dissidents and human rights defenders, several members of the royal family are still held incommunicado and there is no freedom of religion other than Islam.

Yemen is also a stain on the country with nearly 8,000 killed in air raids including 2,000 children. There is a blockade in place adding to the misery in the country.

Newcastle supporters can also claim that our own royal family and senior ministers have frequently visited the country and are on visible and seemingly good terms with Mohammed bin Salman. The UK is also a major supplier of weapons to the regime, despite evidence of the harm done in their use. To condemn the deal is, they might argue, hypocritical. The Saudis also own considerable real estate in London.

While all this is true, there is no escaping the reality of a terrible regime buying a famous football club to enable it to enhance its image in the world. Although the fans seem delighted with the decision, it remains the case that the money is tainted and from a particularly dire regime.

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.

Sport and human rights


The use of sport to sanitise regimes with atrocious human rights records may be increasing

The use of sport and ‘sports wash’ to give favourable publicity to regimes engaged in a range of human rights abuses is probably on the increase and has been particularly noticeable this year.  Sport is now a major international business and involves huge amounts of money.  Some sport is international in scope and has audiences numbered in the millions.  With such a captive audience, it is small wonder that countries who want to sanitise their reputations and present wholesome images of themselves, turn to sport to deliver those images.

Sport is also closely connected with the media and there are sometimes frenzied negotiations to get rights to publish or transmit sporting events.  With so much invested in securing rights and harvesting the advertising which goes with it, there is little time, space or inclination to question too much what goes on behind the scenes.  Sports pages live at the back of most newspapers and exist in a kind of private world.  Pages of dramatic photos of footballers, cricketers, rugby players and others are displayed seemingly detached from the rest of the world.

Abuses are many and include the terrible conditions workers endure building stadia in the Gulf for the football world cup.  Athletes themselves are subject to abuse by their trainers and coaches and British Cycling has been subject to allegations of this kind by a whistle-blower.  Drugs have been a perennial problem and infect many sports.

In recent years, we have seen more examples of sports wash.  We featured the attempt by Saudi Arabia to fund the Newcastle Football Club as part of its campaign to present a better image of the country.  A feature of that campaign was the encouragement it received from the the club’s supporters.

Holding this rally is ‘grotesque’

 

Today (6 January 2021), attention has focused on the Dakar rally which will pass close to the prison where Loujain al-Hathloul is held for campaigning for the right of women to drive.  The regime has been going through some contortions to get itself out of a PR mess of its own making.  The threat to imprison her for a lengthy jail term were dropped and with suspended sentences she should be released in a few months.  Loujain was kidnapped, held without access to a lawyer and tortured.  The rally is organised by the Amaury Sports Organisation whose website does not appear to make claims about human rights adherence.

A tweet from Grant Liberty says:

It is utterly grotesque that at the same time Saudi authorities will host a motor sport event — including women drivers — the heroes that won their right to drive languish in jail.  5 January 

Loujain’s sister said in a tweet:

No-one should be fooled by the Saudi regime’s attempts at sportswashing … Racers might not know it, but their participation there is to hide and whitewash the host’s crimes.  Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain’s sister 5 January

These trends suggest that sport needs to take greater interest in human rights and what is happening in the countries they compete in.  If they are being used to sanitise the reputation of regimes who torture, arrest opposition leaders, human rights defenders, lawyers and generally ignore the human rights of their citizens, they must ask themselves ‘is this what sport is for?’  Huge interest was generated when the footballer Marcus Rashford was influential in forcing the government to change its mind over school meals.  In some areas therefore, sport is beginning to use its power and its huge following to effect change.

But all too often, the lure of big money and a willingness to look the other way, seems to be the prevailing ethos.

 

 

Football and human rights


Contrasting positions by footballers and supporters

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, there have been several photos in the sports pages of groups of kneeling footballers forming either circles (Liverpool) or an H (Chelsea) in support of black rights in the USA.  They are expressing their outrage at the killing of a black American by allegedly over aggressive policing and restraint, which led to Floyd’s death, the latest in a series of black people who have died at the hands of the police.

At the same time – as we have written before – the Premier League is currently debating the sale of Newcastle United Football Club to a consortium funded by Saudi interests to the tune of £300 million.  The litany of human rights abuses in that country are many: torture is common; women’s rights are highly restricted; the death penalty is frequently used, often in public and by beheading, and amputation is practised as a punishment for certain crimes.  There is no free speech and religious persecution is carried out.  Whatever one may think of heavy-handed policing in the USA and the problems over race in that country, it comes no way near the grim state of affairs in Saudi Arabia.  In addition to the human rights abuses there is the war being waged by Saudi in Yemen which is causing immense misery and suffering.

Despite this, supporters of NUFC are overwhelmingly in favour of the transaction taking place.  A poll showed 97% in favour of the sale.  This partly because the current owner – Mike Ashley – has failed to adequately invest in the club and the supporters want the club to do better.  The Premier League is currently debating the sale of the club and the sole consideration, as far as their statements are concerned, is whether broadcasting rights have been infringed:

Qatar broadcaster beIN Sports has also accused the Saudi Arabian government of facilitating the piracy of Premier League football rights in the Middle East through broadcaster beoutQ, although there is a long-running diplomatic row between the two countries.

Saudi broadcaster Arabsat has always denied that beoutQ uses its frequencies to broadcast illegally and has accused beIN of being behind “defamation attempts and misleading campaigns”.  Source: BBC

Newcastle fans bristle at the suggestion that they should not accept such tainted money.  They argue that the issues has only achieved this degree of salience because football is in the public eye.  They point to the sale of arms by the UK and USA governments with little concern for the use they are put or the misery and destruction caused.  They also point to other investments by the Saudi regime in the UK – Uber taxis, or the Independent newspaper – which haven’t received similar negative publicity.

When the widow of Adnam Kashoggi, who was murdered by the regime in Turkey, asked Newcastle to reflect on the funding and not to take it, she was rewarded with some unpleasant trolling on Twitter.

But the contrast is quite stark.  On the one hand an outpouring of sympathy and support for the death of an innocent man in the USA, and on the other, avid support for a takeover by a terrible regime committing far worse acts on its citizens who seek to purchase a football club as part of its sports wash programme.  Quite why there should be this disparity of interest is hard to say.  Possibly sharing the same language so that information from America flows around the world quickly.  The presence of a free press there will be another factor.

If we in the UK – including football fans – could see what is going on in Saudi, if the women were allowed to speak and mobile phone footage of public executions widely circulated, then it is to be hoped their views might be different.

Jonathan Lieu, writing in the New Statesman (22 – 28 May 2020) argues that fans have craved the departure of Mike Ashley and not prepared to get too squeamish about who might replace him.  He says the dissatisfaction with Ashley is not to do with his zero-hours contracts or compromised labour rights, but more to do with his parsimony and failure to splash out some of his wealth on the club.  He argues that the fan’s behaviour and attitudes to the deal –

… is an admission of where the fans sit in the order of things.  Shorn of any real influence, deprived of any meaningful stake in their club, shut out of their stadiums for the foreseeable future, perhaps it is no wonder that some many have simply plumped for the path of least resistance and maximum gratification.  New Statesman p40

This may be so.  But just as important is the power of money in this sport.  Success – other than a fleeting cup run – is almost entirely dependant on huge investment to enable the purchase of top players.  Since investment in football is a risky venture from a financial point of view, the big money comes from people with big egos to support or who are using the sport to launder a reputation.  The desire for success and the need for big money feed on themselves.  Any moral qualms are trampled under foot.  In that, the supporters share with the UK government – whose desire for money from weapons sales – lack any consideration for human rights or the plight of those in Yemen.

Sources: BBC; Premier League; Guardian; New Statesman; aljazeera

Sportswash – again


In a previous post we mentioned the case of Anthony Joshua, the boxer and the fight which took place in Saudi Arabia for which he received a multi-million pound purse.

Human rights groups were critical of his decision to fight there and said it was an example of Sportswash: using sport to try and sanitise a dubious regime. In the case of Saudi this involves executions by beheading; floggings; imprisoning opposition people, lawyers and human rights workers as well as their appalling bombing activities in Yemen.

Lo and behold, within days of this happening and the criticism which it produced, Joshua turns up on the Graham Norton Show on the BBC. This is a show which features actors and celebrities of various kinds who come on to promote their activities and seemingly have a good time. Joshua came on to great acclaim and was variously embraced and fawned over by the other guests. Joshua himself said at the time of the fight that he did not know about Amnesty as he was too busy training but one suspects that Graham Norton, his producers and production team know and must have been aware of the furore surrounding his fight in Saudi. Not a word was said about this.

So what do we call this? Is it Sportswash? The BBC has come in for an increasing amount of criticism for bias and to some extent this is understandable during an election. This is not bias however, it is simply not wanting to see. No doubt his promoters or PR people want to rehabilitate Joshua’s reputation – which took a knock – and what better than to parade him on a lightweight entertainment show like Graham Norton where no awkward questions were asked. But why did the BBC agree to this? Did the other guests know he was coming on and were they not concerned? If they were they did not show it with lots of kisses, backslapping and embracing – typical activity when celebs come together. We do not know of course if other potential guests were sickened by his presence and declined the gig.

So have the BBC been used as part of a plan to rehabilitate Anthony Joshua’s reputation?  Is what is happening in Yemen and Saudi of so little interest to the BBC that inviting this man on for our entertainment matters more than the suffering of people in those two countries?

 

 

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