F1 in Saudi Arabia: Are They Doing Enough?

Written by: Jeonghyeon

Edited by: Jagat

Visual by: Macy

On the evening of December 5, 2021, the inaugural Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix took place in the city of Jeddah. The race was jam-packed with drama both on and off the track, with one such controversy surrounding the location of the event. Formula One is often described as the pinnacle of motor racing, with drivers going wheel-to-wheel at speeds of over 300 kilometer per hour, utilizing bleeding edge technology. It is the most widely known, glamorous, and prestigious race in the world. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has often found itself scrutinized by the international community. It is a country which continues to exact the death penalty against children and non-violent offenders, and an absolute monarchy which restricts almost all of its citizens’ political rights and civil liberties (Freedom House). There have been a large number of international criticisms against the country for its failure to account for its past and present human rights violations (Human Rights Watch, 2019).

One piece of criticism has come from a group of British politicians, including four members of the House of Commons and three members of the House of Lords. They have accused the Grand Prix of enabling “sportswashing,” where a prestigious or international sport to improve its reputation, and that “staging a race in Jeddah without addressing these grave violations of international law risks being seen as a tacit endorsement of them.” In response to these claims, an F1 spokesperson has said that the sport has worked hard on being a positive influence on its host countries and that it aims to bring communities together. This, however, has only brought in additional criticism from international human rights organizations, one of which is Amnesty International. Amnesty International has argued that the events deflect attention from Saudi Arabia’s “dismal” human rights record and is nothing more than a PR stunt in attempts to rebrand their image. 

These accusations have been compounded by widespread criticism from both human rights activists and social media of Formula One’s “We Race As One” campaign, which aims to promote equality across the world. However, this now seems almost contradictory, as multiple races are being held in countries with poor human rights records such as Qatar, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. An additional point various members of the F1 community have pointed out is Formula One’s prioritization of money, as sources reveal that the hosting fee for the Grand Prix between the company and the kingdom is worth more than USD $900 million over the duration of 10 years. 

A handful of F1 drivers, unlike the company itself, have expressed their concern about human rights in Saudi Arabia in multiple interviews, with seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton indicating his discomfort about racing in the kingdown. Hamilton has used his platform multiple times before to promote racial and gender equality. The driver felt “duty-bound” to speak out against the issues surrounding the racing venue, wearing a Progress Pride rainbow-colored helmet to draw attention to the country’s discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. 

Another driver who has spoken out on various political issues throughout their career is four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel, who has said it was clear “some things are not going the way they should” in Saudi Arabia. Trying to promote change in the country, he has also organized a women-only kart race, inviting Saudi women of all backgrounds to hear their first-hand accounts of what life is like for them. The German has also made several statements on political issues throughout the year, wearing pride colors during the Hungarian Grand Prix to protest an anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that was passed just before the race in August of this year. 

Some people, however, believe that Formula One may eventually lead to some positives over time; one of which is motorsport journalist Hazel Southwell. F1 claims that the racing series has been working not just as a distraction but also a spotlight for Saudi Arabia, along with other host countries, motivating them to change. For these same reasons, the president of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Jean Todt, believes that the sport should go to places with human rights issues. 

“Everyone deserves entertainment, everyone deserves sport.” Many of the key figures in Formula One believe that money is a primary justification for holding a race in a country, mostly disregarding human rights or politics. Perhaps instead of chasing the prospective hundreds of millions a country can give them, they should consider racing venues more carefully. 

Works Cited:

“Saudi Arabia: Country Profile.” Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/country/saudi-arabia

“World Report 2021: Rights Trends in Saudi Arabia.” Human Rights Watch, 13 Jan. 2021, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/saudi-arabia

Edmondson, Laurence. “British Politicians Call on F1 to Take Action over Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Record.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 2 Dec. 2021, https://www.espn.com/f1/story/_/id/32771074/british-politicians-call-f1-take-action-saudi-arabia-human-rights-record

Saunders, Nate. “Sebastian Vettel Organised Women-Only Kart Race in Saudi Arabia.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 2 Dec. 2021, https://www.espn.com/f1/story/_/id/32771470/vettel-organised-women-only-kart-race-saudi-arabia

Reuters. “Hamilton Speaks out on Human Rights Ahead of Saudi F1 Debut.” INQUIRER.net, 4 Dec. 2021, https://sports.inquirer.net/443460/hamilton-speaks-out-on-human-rights-ahead-of-saudi-f1-debut

Person, and Alan Baldwin. “Hamilton’s LGBTQ+ Stance Reflects Big Shift in F1 Attitudes.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 4 Dec. 2021, https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/hamiltons-lgbtq-stance-reflects-big-shift-f1-attitudes-2021-12-04/. Hewgill, Christian. “Saudi Arabia Grand Prix: A Race for Equal Rights.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Dec. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-59220247.