Domenicali defends racing in Saudi Arabia: 'Revolutions are done in silence'


Formula 1 is continuing to come under intense scrutiny and criticism for its Saudi associations – but its CEO Stefano Domenicali still asserts the sport can be a force for good

Stefano Domenicali with Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud at 2021 Saudi Arabian GP

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud at the 2021 Saudi Arabian GP

Cristiano Barni/Getty Images

Formula 1’s chief executive has defended the sport’s presence in Saudi Arabia, insisting that it can be genuine agent for change and be part of a “quiet revolution” in the Middle Eastern Kingdom.

Stefano Domenicali’s intervention comes on the eve of the Bahrain GP, the first race of the 2023 calendar, and seeks to address growing concerns over F1 presence in Middle Eastern countries with questionable human rights records.

The Saudi race in particular, which takes place later this month, has attracted strong criticism from human rights organisations and last year faced a drivers’ boycott after a missile attack near the circuit.

Attention has once again focused on the relationship between F1 and Saudi after Lord Scriven, chair of the UK parliamentary group scrutinising civil rights in the Gulf, said yesterday: “It is a pity that the present leadership of the FIA and F1 seem to think money, profit and their own self-importance are far more important than giving dignity and basic human rights to people in the country that they make profit from.”

Domenicali has been battling criticism ever since F1 committed to race there in 2021 and for the sport to be sponsored by the Saudi state-owned oil company Aramco, as well as the world championship’s involvement in other countries with poor human rights records.

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


Domenicali insists however that for all the furore the meeting attracts every year, F1 is a force for good.

“Revolutions are done in the silence,” he says. “It’s a changing of minds, of culture, of mindset. Just to have a headline in the newspaper but not linked with action will not help the change. I prefer to talk every day without being on the news but try to see what is done year by year. Of course you need evidence of what is happening and for me that will be year by year we see change, without shouting but happening. I prefer to be less aggressive, making drops to make sure the river will be flooded later.”

“There is an immense opportunity for all sport to talk about the positive values”

Motor Sport investigates Saudi Arabia’s growing influence in Formula 1 and its teams including McLaren and Aston Martin in our April 2023 issue.

Human rights groups have extensively criticised the F1 presence in Saudi Arabia , accusing it of contributing to “sportwashing” for the regime. They have called for F1 to openly condemn aspects of the Saudi state but Domenicali defends his position, of working with the government with the argument that by being present F1 will engender change at a greater pace.

“Saudi represents an incredible opportunity of a country that wants to shape the future,” he says. “They are young, they have a lot of money to invest, they want to invest in sport and in their country. There is an immense opportunity for all sport to talk about the positive values that through sport everything can be achieved.

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“The pressure from the Western community will enable things to change quicker, I really think this or I would not say that. I am convinced about it. Many things are not where they should be I totally agree but with us being there we are going to accelerate change. Some things require time but the time will be shorter.”

Domenicali does not shy away from discussing the subject, of being confronted with the litany of criticism and demands from human rights groups. He accepts that of course money plays a part in F1 racing in Saudi Arabia, but insists it is only a part, citing the huge range of considerations undertaken in assessing a new host location and the expense and effort F1 goes to to ensure its stated commitment to human rights is met, including extensive independent auditing of the human rights of workers involved in the meeting.

He also notes examples of how the country is already adapting, referring to the concerts held at the race as examples of how the society is changing. Communication, not overt criticism is key to his softly, softly approach in Saudi Arabia he argues.

“To see in Saudi on Saturday night, Sunday night, so many people dancing thanks to F1, if people don’t understand this is something huge it means they don’t know the culture of that country,” he says. “That is happening and it will happen even faster. We need to help them. The more we accuse them and put them in the corner, their natural instinct is to be defensive the more you attack. So we need dialogue to find the right solution, changes take time.”