Human rights organisations have demanded that Formula One act to mitigate human rights abuses in Saoedi-Arabië as the sport prepares to race there for the first time this weekend. F1 is accused of being complicit in sportswashing for the regime and has been presented with a large amount of criticism of the state, much of which appears to be in direct contradiction of F1’s commitment to equality and diversity.
Op Woensdag, Human Rights Watch and the Reprieve group wrote separately to F1 outlining their concerns. Amnesty International wa unequivocal in its criticism and the Codepink group has sent a letter to Lewis Hamilton, the world champion, signed by 41 organisations, requesting he speak to Saudi leaders to highlight human rights issues.
Saudi Arabia has made much play of recently allowing women the right to drive. However HRW has called on F1 to intervene on behalf of women who helped to achieve the change. Prominent activists were released last year after nearly three years in prison for peacefully protesting for their right to drive. They remain under suspended sentences, banned from travel and prohibited from pursuing their human rights work or speaking out about their detention.
HRW also notes “Saudi Arabia’s brutal crackdown on peaceful dissidents” since Mohammed bin-Salman was appointed Crown Prince and that “despite social reforms, prison authorities continue to torture detainees”. Their letter states: “Formula One is in a unique position to either enable or endorse this human rights image-washing or it can press the Saudi Arabian government on its human rights record.”
The Reprieve group has also written to Hamilton, who has been strident in his campaign for diversity and equality in F1, and recently said the sport had a duty to investigate and make a difference on human rights issues in the countries it visits. On Wednesday evening, Hamilton tweeted: “Equality for all.” Reprieve sent F1 a letter from MPs and peers including Lord Hain, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Formula One, stating their concerns over sportswashing.
They cited Saudi Arabia continuing to use the death penalty against children, non-violent offenders and people exercising their right to free speech, suggesting that F1 was tacitly accepting this by racing there. They gave the example of the scholar Hassan al-Maliki, who faces a potential death sentence for peacefully expressing his thoughts on Islamic history. Charges they claim have been brought against him include “possessing books” that were “not authorised by the competent authority”, as well as “publishing books” and “tweets”.
Reprieve was damning in its assessment of his case. “The authorities are seeking the death penalty for what amount to thought crimes, essentially threatening to kill him for the contents of his library,” its letter to F1 reads.
Many drivers, including Hamilton and the four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, have been outspoken in their support for LGBTQI+ rights. Hamilton wore the rainbow colours on his helmet in Qatar and Vettel wore a T-shirt in support of LGBTQI+ rights at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Both are supporters of F1’s highly publicised We Race As One initiative, of which one of the stated aims is diversity and inclusion.
Amnesty has pointedly noted that same‑sex relations remain illegal in Saudi Arabia and are punishable by flogging or imprisonment. The group also claimed the authorities continued a “brutal crackdown” on critics of the government. Felix Jakens, Amnesty UK’s head of campaigns, demanded F1 take responsibility. “The Jeddah Grand Prix is yet another key moment in the Saudi authorities’ wider sportswashing effort," hy het gesê. “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 people who live in a country where same-sex relations are illegal and punishable by flogging or imprisonment.
“We’re calling on Formula One – the drivers, their teams, senior executives – to be prepared to speak out about human rights in Saudi Arabia, helping to undo some of the intended sportswashing of this event.”
F1 concluded a long-term commercial sponsorship deal with the Saudi state-owned oil company, Aramco, in 2020. An F1 spokesperson responded to the criticism with a statement: “For decades Formula One has worked hard to be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits.
Sports like Formula One 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.
“We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence.”
The race organisers in Saudi Arabia also responded with a statement. “We fully recognise the right of all individuals to express their point of view,”Het dit gelees. “But we are confident that once people visit Jeddah, they will see for themselves what a vibrant, open and welcoming culture exists here.”