From hosting Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title fight in 2019 to presenting the 2020 edition of the Spanish Super Cup football tournament, Saudi Arabia is making its mark on the global sports landscape.
In its latest venture, the country will stage the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Red Sea port city of Jeddah in December – set to be the fastest street track in F1 history, according to the event’s website.
“We managed to design a street circuit which is fast and challenging,” Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.
Taking place under floodlights, drivers will encounter a circuit over six kilometers in length, which runs through the city’s scenic waterfront, featuring 27 corners and an average speed of about 252 km/h. At 50 laps, the race distance will measure about 309 km (192 miles), the website says.
Al Faisal hopes that the Grand Prix will appeal to Saudi Arabia’s young population, of which 67% are under the age of 35, according to a 2020 report by the General Authority of Statistics, a government agency.
“Formula One has a very big fan base in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The maiden Saudi Arabian GP is one of a handful of F1 races located in the Persian Gulf, alongside Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.
“[We] don’t fear that we will be competing with other countries in the region,” Al Faisal said. “We see it as we all complete each other.”
But as Saudi Arabia emerges as a powerful stakeholder in global sport, the country’s human rights record is being criticized.
In 2020, after the Saudi Arabian-backed consortium Public Investment Fund made a bid, with two other parties, to purchase English Premier League football club Newcastle United, activists accused the kingdom of “sportswashing” – a phenomenon whereby corrupt or autocratic regimes invest in sports events to whitewash their international reputation. The consortium, including the Saudi PIF, ended up withdrawing its bid in July 2020, citing the prolonged process and global uncertainty.
Earlier this year, human rights group Grant Liberty estimated that Saudi Arabia has spent about $1.5 billion on “sportswashing” since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched his Vision 2030 master plan, which aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil exports.
The country has spent millions on hosting a plethora of prestigious sports events, including golf, horse racing, snooker and chess tournaments, according to Grant Liberty’s 2021 report.
While F1 drivers haven’t yet spoken out against Saudi Arabia’s 10-year deal, reportedly worth $650 million, they have previously questioned where races are being staged – notably Bahrain.
Ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix at the end of the 2020 season, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who uses his platform to spotlight social justice and racial equality, said the human rights abuses that take place in multiple F1 venues “is a consistent and a massive problem.”
“We are probably one of the only ones that goes to so many different countries, and I do think as a sport we need to do more,” he added.
A Bahraini government spokesperson told CNN in March it has a “zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind.”
Speaking about F1 championship leader Hamilton, Al Faisal said: “I really respect him as a driver […] and I admire what he does.
“He has all the right […] to speak up.”
“I’m a big fan, and we want him to come even before the race. … Everybody’s opinion matters to us,” he added.
Cracking down on dissent
Political dissidents, human and women’s rights activists, journalists and online critics have historically been harassed, detained, prosecuted and incarcerated for denouncing the Saudi government, according to Amnesty International and other international human rights groups.
In December 2020, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced to over five years in prison on charges of harming national security, seeking to change the Saudi political system, and using her relations with foreign governments and rights groups to “pressure the Kingdom to change its laws and systems,” according to a charge sheet her family published.
Critics said the charges were politically motivated. Despite being released in February this year, the 31-year-old’s appeal for her sentence to be rescinded – and her five-year travel ban to be lifted – was rejected by a Saudi court.
But it’s the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – whose capture or killing was approved by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to a US intelligence report – that critics argue makes the staging of the Grand Prix unethical.
In 2018, former Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that Khashoggi’s murder was a rogue operation gone wrong.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement following the February US intelligence report where they made similar claims, saying the kingdom “completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom’s leadership, and notes that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions.” It added that Khashoggi’s killing was an “abhorrent crime and a flagrant violation of the kingdom’s laws and values.”
“What happened to Jamal Khashoggi is a tragedy for us,” Al Faisal told CNN’s Davies. “The way that he’d been murdered, it was brutal and especially for me as a Saudi or one from the royal family.”
“This is something that shocked us all, and especially Saudi Arabia. We’ve never heard about someone being killed or murdered,” he said.
Al Faisal added: “I know that Saudi Arabia was known about a lot of things of human rights. But for assassinating or killing someone, this was something shocking for us, especially where he was killed and how he was killed.”
“We never expected something like that [to come] out from Saudis, especially […] official Saudis,” he added.
“This doesn’t mean that this is how we do things.”
The US intelligence report concluded that bin Salman approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi because of his “control of decision-making in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation,” and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
An ‘appalling’ track record
Given the country’s track record on human rights, which Amnesty International described as “appalling,” critics wonder if Saudi Arabia should be envisioning the future of Formula One – or any other major sports franchise.
The Guardian reported that Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said: “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,” Worden added.
“For decades, Formula 1 has worked hard [to] be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits. Sports like Formula 1 are uniquely positioned to cross borders and cultures to bring countries and communities together to share the passion and excitement of incredible competition and achievement,” F1 said in a statement to CNN.
“We take our responsibilities very seriously and have made our position on human rights and other issues clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered. We clearly always take a close view on all venues that we race in, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, we are taking note of developments in the country.”
Last December – when asked to respond to criticism from British lawmakers that Bahrain was using the Grand Prix to “sportswash” its human rights record – F1 boss Chase Carey told CNN that the sport has been “very clear about our commitment to human rights […] about our cooperation and collaboration with our partners to improve and advance the human rights issues.”
While Al Faisal recognizes critics’ widespread condemnation, he says he’s not concerned that politics could overshadow the country’s inaugural F1 event.
“Formula One […] is wise enough to know what’s good for them and their reputation, and if they felt that Saudi Arabia is one of those countries, they would have never agreed to come,” he said.
“We want the people to come to Saudi Arabia and then see [with] their own eyes and then they can have their opinion. I respect someone’s opinion, but I need to know what is based on and what is the motivation,” he added.
“Saudi Arabia changed a lot to the positive. And hopefully, we will also continue development and opening up and changing our country to what is best for our people who live in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Despite Al Faisal’s prediction that political discourse won’t dominate coverage of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, athletes have shown increased political engagement over the past year, using their platforms to shed light on social issues within their sport.
Come December 5, when the race will be staged, it remains to be seen whether the conversation will be just about fast cars.