F1 claims it will help change Saudi Arabia's 'terrifying' human rights laws. Can it really?


Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive human rights laws in the world, so how does Formula 1 square the Jeddah GP with its We Race As One initiative? And should it even be racing there at all?

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

“I’m not comfortable being here,” said Lewis Hamilton in December, honing in on Saudi Arabia’s “terrifying” laws for the LGBTQ+ community.

Formula 1’s most prominent figure added his voice to the ranks of critics who claim that hosting a grand prix in Jeddah legitimises a ruthless regime and shames a sport that claims to race as one.

It’s a charge denied by F1 which proclaims to be a force for change. But, as F1 returns to Jeddah for a second time — two weeks after the Saudi regime executed 81 people in a single day — can a race really bring reform to an absolute monarchy?

We have examined the record of F1 and other sports in affecting positive change in other countries to explore whether Saudi Arabia is a step too far for grand prix racing.

Saudi Arabia tourism logo on Jeddah barrierStefano Domenicali, F1’s CEO has defended the decision to race in a country where same-sex relationships are punishable by flogging or imprisonment; dissenters are arrested and abused; while journalists are murdered.

“The spotlight we are bringing will be beneficial for the will and the wishes of change that these countries are showing,” he told the BBC last year “I don’t believe that shutting countries off and saying we don’t want to be there will help the situation to improve. Actually, it will be the opposite.

“It doesn’t mean everything is perfect, such an important change cannot happen overnight. But the timing will be accelerated by the fact big events are there. And Formula 1 will play an important role in that respect.”

Since this article was first published in December 2021, he has echoed those comments again in response to the mass-beheadings on March 12. Domenicali told Sky that human rights was “at the centre of [F1’s] agenda” and that racing could bring a spotlight to the issue. He admitted that he was “alarmed” by news of the executions.

The United Nations went a bit further. Its high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that Saudi Arabia may have carried out a war crime, with 41 of those executed thought to be protestors from the Shiite minority who were calling for greater political participation.

Names of the dead weren’t released in the execution statement published by the state-run Saudi press agency. There were no details of charges, and seemingly no independent witnesses to the trials.

The accusation levelled by groups including Amnesty International is that F1 isn’t bringing progressive values, but helping the Saudi authorities in sportswashing, by diverting attention from human rights abuses and painting a flattering image of the country

“It’s important that the glamour of F1 is not allowed to divert attention from the plight of Saudi women’s rights defenders who risk imprisonment for their work, or from the struggles of Saudi LGTBI,” said Felix Jakens, Amnesty UK’s head of campaigns.

Lewis Hamilton in to hug a snake can be a mistake Gucci t shirt

“To hug a snake can be a mistake”: Lewis Hamilton makes a statement ahead of practice in Jeddah last year

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Individual sporting events don’t have a great track record of bringing about political change, spectacularly illustrated by Vladimir Putin’s interpretation of the Olympic message of peace: his soldiers invaded Crimea while Russia was hosting the 2014 Winter Games.

Formula 1 is unable to show much evidence of bringing change either. The first Bahrain Grand Prix was held in 2004 and F1 continues to return to a country that still holds protestors involved in 2011’s pro-democracy protests that were violently, and lethally crushed.

Last year, we asked F1 what changes it had helped to bring about in Bahrain over the past 17 years. It is still considering a response. It can at least claim to have confronted Bahraini authorities over Najah Yusuf who, in 2017, wrote a social media post that accused the government of sportswashing by hosting a grand prix. She was jailed for three years but freed early in 2019.

“States have long used sport as a means through which to alter their external image”

The Women’s Tennis Association has taken a different approach. Last December, it announced a boycott of all events in China, after concerns for the welfare of Peng Shuai, one of the country’s leading players who accused a Chinese official of sexual assault. It issued an ultimatum, calling for an end to online censorship over the issue and a transparent investigation before the WTA would return.

“Boycotts may contribute to a process of change but I’ve not seen sport helping to move countries towards democratisation by hosting events,” says Jonathan Grix, professor of sports policy and politics at the Manchester Metropolitan University. “There’s a clash of cultures and values between some hosts and sporting organisers, around issues such as feminism and women in society, and some hosts are not interested in taking that part of what a sport brings.

“They might make an exception for a specific period of time and then when the event is over, they go back to where they were before.”

2011 Bahrain protests

Bahrain crushed protests in 2011. Some demonstrators remain in prison. Some may have been executed, according to the UN

AFP via Getty Images

In Saudi Arabia, rules on dress have been relaxed in the Formula 1 paddock, and are also being waived in areas earmarked for tourism, where men and women will be allowed to mingle on beaches.

Some cultural change is happening as the country looks to diversify from oil. Women are discovering the novelty of being able to learn to drive, and to travel or take a job without permission from a male guardian. Although some who campaigned for those rights are still serving sentences.

There are female Saudi racing drivers too: among them the talented Reema Juffali who is the only female in her single-seater series. Less-publicised is that she learned to drive and race in America, while Saudi women were banned from doing the same. She worked in London before joining British F3.

There is undoubtedly merit to the argument that the Saudi Grand Prix is shining a greater spotlight on human rights issues: you wouldn’t be reading about it on Motor Sport if the race wasn’t taking place.

From the archive

Michal Kobierecki, assistant professor in the Department of Political Theory and Political Thought at the University of Lodz in Poland, has studied how major sporting effects can shape a country’s image. He says that sportswashing can fail when the world’s attention focuses on troubling issues.

“Organisers want to be at the centre of attention but that means that they will also be the centre of attention for human rights activists, for example. Hosting an event is an opportunity for those actors to put those inconvenient issues into the daylight, and hosts can suffer from what’s termed soft disempowerment.”

However, the rising number of international events being hosted in the Saudi Arabia — including Formula E and Extreme E races, the Dakar Rally, and a long-term F1 contract — are likely to see attention move elsewhere.

“States have long used sport as a means through which to alter things, and one of which is their external image,” says Grix. “In my experience, this process is rarely successful. If a state suffers from a poor reputation – say for human rights abuses – a few high-profile sports events are unlikely to change this perception.

“One way of looking at sportswashing is to see how these events can be normalised. Look at China: it hosted the Olympics but now has a big sporting event almost every week — including a grand prix. It doesn’t make the headlines any more, and it soon becomes the norm.”

Overhead view of Saudi Jeddah circuit

Saudi GP is part of the Kingdom’s plans to change its image

Mario Renzi /F1 via Getty Images

Grix points out that countries have been using sport to bolster their images for decades; from Berlin’s pre-war Olympics, to the post-war Tokyo Games that helped rehabilitate Japan on to the international stage. Britain, which has a legion of critics as a result of recent wars, arms sales and punchy diplomacy, pitched itself as modern and inclusive at the 2012 Games.

There’s a complex question over where sport should draw the line, but few doubt that Saudi Arabia is beyond it, placed 151st out of 162 countries in the most recent Human Freedom Index published by the American libertarian Cato Institute.

Even so, F1’s current human rights policy allows grand prix racing to bypass the issue entirely by disregarding the policies of host countries, as long as they don’t apply to the races themselves.

“We focus our efforts in relation to those areas which are within our own direct influence,” it states. The policy also commits to assessing “any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which we may be involved either through our own activities or as a result of our business relationships”.

When asked if this assessment included sportswashing, F1 pointed to Domenicali’s comments on how races can focus attention on human rights issues.

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 19: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP prepares to drive in the garage during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar at Losail International Circuit on November 19, 2021 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Hamilton wore a rainbow helmet in Saudi Arabia for last year’s inaugural race

F1 via Getty Images

Pierre de Coubertin’s vision for the Olympics was that sport would bring people together to discover that we have more in common than which divides us — in a modern sense, regardless of nationality, skin colour, religion, political persuasion or sexuality.

On that basis, F1 may have a case for racing anywhere. But it’s a multi-billion dollar industry, where plans are announced in quarterly investor meetings; teams are increasingly owned by multinationals or private equity investors rather than enthusiasts; and venues are chosen on the basis of profitability.

Saudi Arabia has made it clear that its motivation for hosting the race is to reform its appalling image, with officials speaking of “changing perceptions” and “reaching new audiences”.

But with such a weak track record of international sporting events being a force for change, you may find it difficult to see beyond one conclusion: that F1’s expansion to Jeddah is little more than a marketing opportunity to a regime that’s less enthused about the racing than it is with papering over a grotesque reality for subjects who are offered no voice.