Saudi Arabia's increasing influence on Formula 1

With Saudi Arabia’s vast investment in Formula 1, are we turning a blind eye to its worsening human rights record? Giles Richards reveals the desert state’s deep involvement in racing amid flames of controversy

2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix missile attack

2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix went ahead despite a missile attack 10 miles from the circuit, an attack by Houthi rebels in response to Saudi's bombing of the Yemen – but Russian GP was cancelled due to Ukraine conflict


There were many striking moments from the 2022 Formula 1 season and one, indicative of how the sport still brings out the best, was George Russell leaping from his car at Silverstone. Russell’s first thought was to do anything he could to help fellow driver Zhou Guanyu, trapped in his stricken Alfa Romeo.

The image stood in stark contrast to another, that of plumes of black smoke rising over the Saudi Arabian desert as F1 cars lapped the Corniche circuit below. The smoke was the result of a missile strike on an oil refinery carried out by Yemeni Houthis who have been in a seven-year conflict with a Saudi-led coalition.

The scenes could not have been further from the slick, Netflix-friendly image F1 is working hard to promote. Yet F1 raced on in the shadows of that missile strike and it returns to Saudi Arabia on March 19 for the second event of the 2023 calendar. The Saudis and the sport have a deal after all – a deal that F1’s global director of race promotion Chloe Targett-Adams has said will last a “decade if not longer”.

Even before it found itself in the midst of a warzone, F1’s involvement with the kingdom had been the subject of controversy. There is unease among some at the vast amounts of money pouring into the sport from Saudi and claims the state is using F1 to distract from human rights abuses. All of which prompts a number of questions – many of them uncomfortable and many requiring more than the soundbites into which the official channels of the sport so often descend. Why is F1 there? Why has Saudi pursued the sport? Is F1 a force for good in the country? How deep does Saudi influence really extend into F1? And what does that say about the future direction of the sport?

In considering the answers to these questions we must first weigh up the true scale of the Saudi involvement in F1. The most obvious place to start is with the Saudi deal to host the race. The hosting deal, currently at the Corniche circuit but with a brand new complex in Qiddiya set to become the venue from 2026, is one of the richest on the calendar (last year the Saudi minister for sport Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal expressed interest in hosting two races). Although F1 does not reveal exact figures, we understand that the Saudi race is worth around £42m a year, a price matched only it is believed by Azerbaijan and Qatar.

Qiddiyah, the future for the Saudi Arabian GP

Qiddiyah, the future for the Saudi Arabian GP.

To put that in perspective, the deals F1 has done with what it refers to as the ‘classic circuits’ in Europe, are significantly lower: the British GP pays approximately £19m, Belgium £16.8m and Italy £19m.

Race fees are not the only Saudi investment in the sport. In 2020 F1 concluded a title sponsorship deal with Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company in which the Saudi government has a 95% share. The deal is believed to be worth £378m over 10 years, which combined with the race hosting fees is thought to make the Saudi state the single biggest contributor to F1’s finances.

Saudi Arabia does most of its investment in sport – from motor racing to football and golf – via its sovereign wealth fund known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF). Established in 1971 it is one of the biggest such funds in the world with total assets of around £500bn.

The PIF has made an effort to present itself as independent from the government and the scrutiny and criticism it attracts over human rights issues. However, the close ties between the two was made clear in February last year when Aramco transferred 4% of its shares to the PIF, a decision authorised by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

Certainly the PIF has been busy in F1. In July 2021 it made a £400m investment in the McLaren Group, as part of an equity-raising deal. McLaren has announced it will open an office in the campus set to be established at Neom, the state’s planned carbon-neutral future city, of parallel skyscrapers 200m wide and 100 miles long. Neom is also the title sponsor of both the McLaren Formula E and Extreme E teams.

In July 2022 the PIF bought into the Aston Martin Lagonda company, title sponsor of the F1 team and is now AML’s second largest shareholder, behind Yew Tree, the consortium of investors led by Lawrence Stroll. Notably this investment followed Aramco becoming a title sponsor of the Aston Martin F1 team in February 2021.

Aramco Aston Martin F1

Saudi state oil company Aramco is title sponsor of Aston Martin F1

McLaren f1 car being worked on in garage

McLaren has benefited from Saudi investment. Far

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman headshot

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the 2022 Saudi GP.

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These expenditures are not intended as one-off expansions into the motor racing industry but rather part of a much broader and ambitious plan. In January the president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, told Motor Sport of his hopes that F1 teams might relocate their bases to Saudi Arabia as part of a long-term ambition to build their own Saudi teams and drivers to ultimately compete in F1.

“We want to create a hub,” he said. “We have big companies that can help the future of motor sport. Hopefully we can bring one of the big manufacturers. With all the investing we are doing in cars – the investment fund bought shares in McLaren and Aston Martin – we are heading that way. Hopefully we can open and bring headquarters to Saudi Arabia.”

There may yet be even more ambitious plans afoot. In January, Bloomberg reported that the PIF had made a $20bn (£16.5bn) offer to purchase F1 from Liberty Media. F1 reportedly rejected the deal and the veracity of the offer has since been questioned by many involved in the sport.

F1 is not the only sport receiving significant investment from Saudi Arabia. In recent years the desert kingdom has hosted Formula E and Extreme E races, the World Touring Car Cup and is in its fourth year of a 10-year contract to host the Dakar Rally. It has an agreement in place to hold a MotoGP meeting in the future and is expected to announce a deal to host a round of the World Rally Championship in 2024.

Sky view of Jeddah’s Saudi Arabian GP

This season will be Jeddah’s third hosting of the Saudi Arabian GP

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These events sit alongside the recent high-profile signing of Cristiano Ronaldo for the Saudi Al-Nassr football team, while Lionel Messi was brought on board as a tourism ambassador in May last year. The state has bought Newcastle United, backed the controversial LIV golf tour and has hosted boxing title fights, tennis and chess, as well as the Saudi Cup horse race, the world’s richest sporting event with prize money of £20m.

All of which fits in with its stated aim to “diversify and enrich the Kingdom’s tourism and entertainment experience to build a more vibrant society and solidify the sports sector’s economic and social role on all levels”.

The investments are part of a strategy to improve the perception of the country. The plan, known as Vision 2030, was launched in 2016 by Bin Salman. Its purpose, a strategic effort to reduce the Kingdom’s reliance on oil revenue, and transform the state both economically and socially. In a nation where 70% of the population is under 40 years old, sport and motor sport clearly play a key role in this.

Horse racing in Saudi Arabia

The country’s investments in sports extends to horse racing, golf and football

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To some critics however there is a more sinister side to the investment. Their concerns raise important questions about F1’s financial exposure to PIF investment and how far Saudi’s influence extends within the sport and what it could mean for the future.

Concerns centre on a concept known as sportswashing – a term coined in 2015 to describe a state’s use of sport to ‘clean’ its public image. In 2021 the human rights organisation Grant Liberty published a report bluntly stating that it believed the Saudis had spent $1.5bn (£1.2bn) on sporting events in an effort to do just this and distract from a much criticised human rights record and a repressive authoritarian regime.

Joey Shea, the Saudi and UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch, was unequivocal in her assessment of the real role motor sport and in particular F1 was playing. “They are absolutely contributing to Saudi sportswashing,” she said. “We see the investment in motor sport and hosting these events is a major strategy to deflect attention from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator, particularly over the last four or five years, in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc in Jeddah

Amid the drama and debates surrounding Jeddah last season there was a race – won by Max Verstappen

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Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, an act that US intelligence services concluded was approved by Bin Salman. An accusation refuted by the Saudi government.

Since the announcement of Vision 2030, part of a blueprint in which liberalisation would play a part, rights organisations have recorded not an improvement but a severe crackdown on dissent. “We have seen the repression over the last few years only get worse,” said Shea. “Arrests have increased, sentences for a tweet mildly critical of the regime can get you decades in prison.”

“Saudi is thought to be the single biggest contributor to F1’s finances”

Last year, a Saudi student at Leeds University, Salma al-Shehab, had returned to Saudi Arabia for a holiday. She was arrested and in August sentenced to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting dissidents and activists. She has two sons still in the UK. In 2022 just over a week before the teams were to arrive for the grand prix, 81 men were executed on the same day. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, reported that the UN believed that of the 81 convicted of ‘terror offences’, 41 were from the Shia minority who had taken part in anti-government protests, calling for greater political participation. This matters to F1 because of its stated commitment to upholding human rights in the countries where it races.

Stefano Domenicali, CEO of F1, makes the case that the sport can affect greater change by engaging with the governments who pay for the publicity F1 brings them. “To deny and say we will never go to certain places and try to be blind and not be there I think is the worst thing to do,” he said. “If you have a sign from the society, from the top, from the people that have to manage the change, that there is a will to make a transformation then this is the most important thing we need to work on together. What we want to develop together is fundamental to us in the right way, to make sure the speed of transformation will be faster.”

Domenicali cites the sport’s adoption of the We Race as One campaign as indicative of its commitments. “Remember last year on the helmet of Lewis Hamilton there was the rainbow, so you cannot say we are not talking – it was very strong symbolism,” he said. “But without attacking because an attack always requires a defence. There are other countries. There were some last year where I said openly it was OK for the drivers to speak up in the right way. F1 in the last couple of years with our platform We Race as One, we raised the awareness of a lot of things. Compared to other international sport we were the one to take that very seriously at the highest standard ever.”

Saudi Arabia, Formula 1 and FIA flags

Saudi Arabia has a contract to host F1 grands prix until 2030.

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He also argued that even the missile attack last year ultimately boasted a positive outcome, encouraging a better understanding of the Saudi position from drivers and teams.

“In the crisis of the missile hit in the area of the track, it activated a very intense dialogue,” he explained. “It was between the minister of sport, who tried to explain to the F1 community and drivers what is the task and the job that the country is going toward. A better integration of certain values that for us are very relevant and that are becoming important. We are having meetings with them to understand the path and where they are in their journey.”

Motor Sport invited the Saudi minister of sport, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal to discuss the role of racing in the Kingdom but he declined to do so.

However, Martin Whitaker, CEO of the Saudi Motorsport Company, the grand prix race promoter and the organisation which works to promote motor racing in the Kingdom alongside its ASN, the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation and the ministry of sport, was willing to offer his assessment of racing’s place in the state. Whitaker believes the industry is driving involvement in racing and creating jobs for young people and helping change the perception of the country as well as playing its part in the broader aims of the 2030 plan.

“Saudi Arabia has a love for motor sport and is keen to make sure it uses motor sport as an opportunity for young people in Saudi Arabia to get involved in the sport,” he said. “F1 is an interest-driver for people. All walks of life can be interested in this sport. The Saudi Motorsport Company has approximately 170 people working for it, and 40% of those people are women. That gives you an indication of how we are approaching the development of the sport and how that can be a force for good in terms of giving people jobs and young people career paths.”

Saudi Arabia Formula E

aside from Formula 1, Saudi Arabia is a fixture on the Formula E calendar.

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Whitaker makes the case that there is a bigger picture too.

“F1 creates a whole wealth of other opportunities in business, tourism and economic impact,” he said. “In that sense Saudi is no different to any other country that stages an F1 race. The UK has had a motor sport industry for probably almost 100 years. Saudi has had one for four years. Saudi has come late to the party in terms of using motor sport to create interest in tourism and economic opportunity but it is no different to what any other country has been through in a different stage of their life.

“I fully believe sport, particularly motor sport and its development is a force for good. It is helping to change perceptions. People who come here leave with a much better understanding of Saudi Arabia. I see it as a force for good in changing the perceptions of Saudi Arabia.”

Whether it does or not time will tell. But while F1 may remain comfortable with racing in Saudi Arabia some of its principal protagonists and the ones who are the sport’s biggest draw, the drivers, are not.

Before the first Saudi Grand Prix in 2021 Lewis Hamilton was clearly not happy at racing in a state that sat so manifestly in opposition to his beliefs. Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia and can be punished by flogging and imprisonment. “If anyone wants to take the time to go and read what the law is for the LGBTQ+ community, it’s pretty terrifying,” said Hamilton. “So there’s a lot of change that needs to happen, and I think our sport needs to do more.”

Lewis Hamilton helmet

Lewis Hamilton’s rainbow helmet of ’22

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The missile attack also set drivers against F1. The drivers wanted to leave, for the race to be cancelled and reportedly agreed to a boycott if not. It was prevented only after a meeting with team principals and F1 who, backed by the Saudi authorities, made a case for it being safe to race on. It is believed one argument used to bring the drivers back on side was an agreement that they would be involved in a discussion about the race and its future on the calendar.

“It is clear that the controversy around the Saudi Arabian GP will not go away”

Afterwards Hamilton voiced what everyone was thinking: “I am so happy the weekend is done,” he said. “I am just looking forward to getting out. I just want to go home.”

As the teams prepare to once again race in Jeddah, it is clear that the controversy around the race will not go away. Even with the recent ban on drivers making political statements, subsequently revised by the FIA to apply only to key moments such as when on the podium, it is likely media coverage will continue to focus on whether the all new, Netflix-friendly F1 can afford to keep racing in Saudi.

But given the reliance on Saudi finance by both F1 and some teams, perhaps the real question is whether it can afford not to.

Giles Richards is the Guardian’s Formula 1 correspondent