CNN  — 

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.

Prince Khalid bin Sultan al-Faisal, Chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (right), hopes the Saudi Arabian GP will appeal to the country's younger generation.

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.

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."

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.