Diving Into Amnesty International’s Sportswashing Criticisms About F1’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix

Illustration for article titled Diving Into Amnesty Internationals Sportswashing Criticisms About F1s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix

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Formula One announcing its provisional schedule with addition of a Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia has not been particularly well-received across the board—and it has resulted in Amnesty International condemning F1 for “sportswashing” the country. But that’s not the only viewpoint.


Amnesty International’s Take

I presume that most of the folks reading this blog live in a western country, probably the United States, which means we have a lot of thoughts about Saudi Arabia. We know and have balked at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, guardianship views that leave women under complete control of their spouse or other male relatives, denigration of LGBTQIA+ rights, arrests of human rights activists, oil-based profiteering that has contributed to climate change, the widespread use of torture as an acceptable interrogation method and, well—a lot of other things that paint the country in a poor light.


Saudi Vision 2030 is intended to change those views by reducing oil dependence and instead introducing concerts, sporting events, and more entertainment options that is claimed to improve the lives of its citizens by bolstering the economy through more positive means. A lot of people see it as, basically, a PR campaign that masks any deep-rooted problems with a glossy cover.

It also ties into the definition of “sportswashing,” which is the name given to repressive governments or regimes hosting sporting events as a way to improve the country’s image or record on a global scale. It would be really handy, for example, if we all know Saudi Arabia as the country that hosts good races instead of the country that poses significant problems to its citizens. It’s the kind of thing that Amnesty International condemns.

Here’s a statement from Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns:

Formula 1 should realize that a Saudi Grand Prix in 2021 would be part of ongoing efforts to sportswash the country’s abysmal human rights record.

The failed attempt to buy Newcastle United obviously hasn’t deterred the Saudi authorities, who apparently still see elite-level sport as a means of rebranding their severely tarnished reputation.

Despite the fanfare over Saudi women finally being allowed to drive a car without being arrested, the authorities have recently locked up and tortured several leading women’s rights activists—including Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sada.

If a Saudi Grand Prix goes ahead, at the very least F1 should insist that all contracts contain stringent labour standards across all supply chains, and that all race events are open to everyone without discrimination.


He seems to recognize that F1 can’t be guilted into doing the right thing, going on to say that “we would urge all F1 drivers, owners and teams to consider speaking out about the human rights situation in the country, including by expressing solidarity with jailed human rights defenders,” in the lead-up to the race.

Here’s another great quote from Minky Worden, the Human Rights Watch director overseeing sport:

Sporting bodies like Formula One and the FIA cannot ignore the fact they and fans are being used for sportswashing. It is part of a cynical strategy to distract from Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, detention and torture of human rights defenders and women’s rights activists.

Formula One has made human rights commitments, and should explain how the company’s operations will improve human rights in Saudi Arabia. Have F1 staff used their negotiations with Saudi leaders to advocate for the release of women’s rights activists whose only crime was advocating for the right to drive? Fans, media and race teams should use this moment to say their sport should not be associated with such serious human rights abuses.


Basically, a lot of this pushback is coming from the fact that F1 recently announced its “We Race as One” campaign that’s designed to break down barriers between people (albeit without really introducing any comprehensive changes to make the sport more welcoming to, say, women and the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities). People wouldn’t be happy about F1 racing in Saudi Arabia on a normal day, but adding in the extra layer of the series proclaiming its commitment to human rights before scheduling a race there is not a good look.

What The Paddock Is Saying

As you can imagine, a lot of folks within the F1 paddock haven’t been willing to speak out against the race in Saudi Arabia.


Here’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff’s view:

We’ve seen that us racing globally, there was a positive discussion around F1.

I’ve been in Riyadh for Formula E, I think it was a year ago, and I was impressed by the change that I’ve seen. As a visitor you never know how things are going. But what I’ve seen personally, that’s the only comment I can make, because it was a great event with no segregation, women and men in the same place, enjoying the sporting event.

We need to start somewhere. And what I’ve seen is that it started somewhere, and I believe that we should do whatever we can to make the world a better place.


Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, offered a statement that was the equivalent of shrugging his shoulders: “When we sign up for a world championship, we don’t dictate where that calendar goes, but we sign up to race in every race.”

He then went on to say that sports are not political, so teams should trust that F1 has their best interests in mind.


A lot of emphasis has been placed on Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who has been vocal about pursuing equality through the 2020 season. Amnesty International seems to have pegged its hopes on Hamilton speaking out against the Grand Prix. But considering the political quagmire this situation presents, Hamilton has thus far only talked around the issue:

I don’t know enough about the human rights issue that’s happening in Saudi Arabia. I have some friends that go there and tell me it’s a stunning place, but I think it’s important that I before I really comment I know exactly what the issue is.

Nelson Mandela many years ago said sport has the power to change the world for the better. And I think we have already seen the positive shifts that we as a sport this year have committed to and started to push in the direction of supporting human rights and equality and inclusivity.

The current fact is we go to all these countries, and while it is a great event, we don’t leave a long lasting positive effect on those places. The question is, can we? Can we be a part of bringing attention to certain issues and push them to change?


Hamilton raises an interesting point. He has shown this year that even one sporting figure speaking out on an international stage can have a widespread impact, but to leave a positive impression on a country takes a more concerted effort. F1 has the ability to take a more concerted stand, to make a stronger investment in the countries it races in, which could serve as a simple way to make a lot of positive change.

But the series has yet to do so and likely will not as long as high-ranking personnel in the sport believe that motorsport is apolitical.


The Other Side

I’ve seen some compelling arguments in favor of hosting a race in Saudi Arabia, but perhaps the best has come from Hazel Southwell, a former Jalopnik contributor and current contributor at RaceFans. Unlike many of the folks commenting on the event, Southwell has actually attended a race in Saudi Arabia before.


I’m going to pull a few of the most compelling quotes from her RaceFans article, but it is worth reading the whole thing:

Of the 39 million people in Saudi Arabia, nine million live in Riyadh, and it’s boring. The cars are all dusty old Toyota Camrys, not blacked-out SUVs. Buildings are a little neglected. The big migrant worker population is noticeably poorer and when I stayed in a heavily Filipino district, in December 2019, it was definitely in a shabbier state than some of the rest of the city and particularly the luxury compounds on the outskirts.


When the first race arrived my status as a novelty in motorsport turned into a surreal experience where teenage girls kept coming up to me, grabbing my lanyard and excitedly talking to me while I felt like a total fraud. They’d never got to go to a race before, because there hadn’t been any and, until the FIA and Formula E leant on the Eprix organisers, women weren’t allowed. They were fascinated by the idea that, living in London, I’d do anything so obviously worse as to come to their country where this was the biggest thing that’d happened. A sharp perspective on my own privilege.


Ultimately, Southwell’s argument is that “people living under a brutal regime are no less deserving of sport than you, living in freedom,” as she so succinctly stated on Twitter.

Other folks have been arguing that, if F1 stops racing in countries that violate human rights issues, it might not have many places left to race. And I will admit that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting racial inequality and police brutality, you could probably add the United States onto the list of countries F1 shouldn’t race at. It’s one of those stipulations that you can really drag out to cover just about every country in the world.


Southwell does have a point in saying that it’s disingenuous to deprive Saudi Arabians of enjoyment because the regime—which most of these same people did not choose—doesn’t conform to western standards of acceptability. At the same time, the other side has a point in arguing that a series like F1 hosting a race in Saudi Arabia legitimizes dictatorships that have made life a living hell for many folks that don’t deserve it.

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