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6 Nov 2020

Saudi Arabia: Rights groups condemn 2021 Formula One debut as "sportswashing"; incl. co. comments

Saudi Arabia has announced it is to host its debut Formula One race in November 2021, a move human rights groups have denounced as “sportswashing” as they urged teams, drivers and fans to speak out in condemnation of F1’s decision to host the event in a country with a long history of severe human rights abuses.

Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch highlighted that Formula One has made certain human rights commitments and questioned how F1 have used the opportunity to advocate for the release of women’s rights activists, imprisoned for advocating women’s right to drive.

Amnesty’s Middle East director Heba Morayef cited an announcement by the country’s security agency in 2019 declaring feminism, homosexuality and atheism extremist ideas punishable by jail or flogging as evidence of Saudi Arabia’s “bogus reformist image”.

Formula One issued a response stating “F1 has worked hard to be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social and cultural benefits. Sports like F1 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 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.”

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. Formula One has made human rights commitments, and should explain how the company’s operations will improve human rights in Saudi Arabia. Have F1 staff used their negotiations with Saudi leaders to advocate for the release of women’s rights activists whose only crime was advocating for the right to drive? Fans, media and race teams should use this moment to say their sport should not be associated with such serious human rights abuses.
Minky Worden, HRW director overseeing sport
With critics of the government either jailed, exiled or hounded into silence, the Saudi authorities have pursued a twin-track approach of crushing human rights while throwing large amounts of money at glittering sporting events. The bitter irony over a Saudi Grand Prix is that the very people who fought for the rights of Saudi women to be able to drive are now themselves languishing in jail.
Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK head of campaigns