I’ve been to races in Saudi Arabia: Here’s why I don’t oppose its grand prix

2021 F1 season

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Racing in Saudi Arabia is political – and controversial – but it should be about the effect it has on the lives of Saudi citizens, not just the way it’s perceived in the west.

There’s the things everyone knows about Saudi Arabia: the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the guardianship scheme that prevents women from making career, financial or travel choices without permission from a male relative or spouse, the total intolerance of LGBTQ+ people, the documented use of torture as a method of interrogation, arrests of human rights activists and the brutally catastrophic war in Yemen. There’s the oil-based profiteering that’s unquestionably helped destroy the earth’s climate, the abuse of migrant workers, mostly from the Philippines, and connections with global terrorism.

I’m listing these so you don’t think I don’t know about them or want to shy away from them, even though I don’t think they should stand in the way of racing there. Which might seem like a weird view but it’s based on having been there and seen how Formula E is able to run.

I’m not paid to say this. I don’t get flown out and escorted around by Formula E for the race (some others do) and they’ve never told me what to say or write about it – possibly because, after six seasons, they know that wouldn’t work.

Hazel Southwell, Ad Diriyah
Formula E has raced in Saudi Arabia twice
The first time I went to Riyadh was for a showcase, which they did take me to, but the subsequent two times I made it there on my beloved nemesis Ryanair. Formula E don’t know where I stay or what I get up to when I’m there, I’ve never been on the books of CSM (a global sports PR agency who have brought journalists to Formula E races) and don’t even get invited to their dinners at races. The only thing I get from the series is an annual piece of plastic on a string, unreliable media centre Wi-Fi and quotes, which is exactly how it should work.

Riyadh is not a very beautiful city, although ancient Diriyah (where we race) is spectacular. It’s also weirdly criss-crossed by enormous motorways which decentralise the whole structure, so that everywhere feels like a dusty suburb. Or maybe that’s just that there’s really not much at all to do, beyond book and kebab shops and – cheeky fact – five Nandos.

Of the 39 million people in Saudi Arabia, nine million live in Riyadh, and it’s boring. The cars are all dusty old Toyota Camrys, not blacked-out SUVs. Buildings are a little neglected. The big migrant worker population is noticeably poorer and when I stayed in a heavily Filipino district, in December 2019, it was definitely in a shabbier state than some of the rest of the city and particularly the luxury compounds on the outskirts.

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There’s evidently a problem with the infrastructure for collecting rubbish, which accumulates in the streets, to the delight of scrawny moggies no one really owns – a staple of the Middle East and Caucasus that I found reassuringly familiar – but who get indulged by a lot of people.

Women racers participated in a special Formula E test
I find it stressful, which is embarrassing to admit, because I’m fearless about travelling and at the end of the day Riyadh is just an ordinary place that people live in. When it was announced, I had the same concerns as anyone – actually, quite a lot of very specific and personal concerns about how I was going to do my job for the next 10 years, as a woman who works in Formula E – and I took series CEO Alejandro Agag to task about it in a press conference at the first opportunity.

He said something I disagreed with then – and still do – which was that sport isn’t political. It is. And the ‘optics’ of racing in Saudi Arabia are of a political endorsement of the regime there, which is what people object to.

As outsiders, we see a race in Saudi as being about Formula 1 or Formula E. And, by extension, we who work in and watch them being taken there on the allure of oil money (it’d be silly, not to mention naive, to suggest Aramco’s funding isn’t a factor).

International sport suddenly arriving in Saudi is due to Vision 2030, the Saudi state’s plan for improving the lives of its citizens, which is largely regarded as PR talk for a regime that’s actually uninterested in change. There is more to it than that, on an internal level – Saudi citizens have relatively poor quality of life and life expectancy (70% of the population is aged between 15-30, 90% work in agriculture and the majority are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change) and sport, activities and entertainment, after decades in, essentially, lockdown, is part of the plan to improve that.

I’ve been deprived of race action for nine months – like most of us this year – and I’d get myself on the next budget flight to one within seconds if the opportunity came up, desperately yearning to go back, even though I’ve been lucky enough to have been to loads, over my lifetime. It would suck if I’d never had the opportunity at all.

Motorsport, as a world, is extremely conservative by the rest of most society’s standards. But throw it into an even more conservative world and suddenly it can become pretty radical.

When Saudi Arabia got its Eprix in 2018, the condition was that it had to run like any other round of the championship. Women, who had been banned not just from motorsport but from driving until that summer, had to be welcomed and there had to be mixed-gender grandstands, as well as the option for a women-only one. There would also be women on track, as part of a special test where teams could run a second car if they chose a female driver to do it.

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That test means Saudi Arabia is, by quite some distance, the country where the most women have simultaneously driven current, top-flight, single seater race cars. Which is the sort of stat that you’d say ‘well, why does that matter?’ But when I brought it up to the now-head of the Saudi sports authority, the first time I went to Riyadh, as a stunt, we ended up agreeing that any other country could’ve done it if they’d wanted to in the 120 or so years of motorsport’s prior history. The stipulation of inclusion, as a condition of the race, created an environment where women were encouraged and the comparison with the way that doesn’t happen elsewhere is stark.

Mercedes-AMG GT R Official FIA F1 Safety Car with new WeRaceAsOne livery, 2020
Formula 1 will bring its diversity initiative to Saudi
Does it mean that women’s rights are fixed in Saudi? No, absolutely not and I don’t think you could expect an electric motorsport race to do that. The politics of it simply aren’t that large scale but you can create, as an event, a better environment. It is political, to do these things anywhere and ‘#WeRaceAsOne’ had better ensure that F1 is doing the same.

When the first race arrived my status as a novelty in motorsport turned into a surreal experience where teenage girls kept coming up to me, grabbing my lanyard and excitedly talking to me while I felt like a total fraud. They’d never got to go to a race before, because there hadn’t been any and, until the FIA and Formula E leant on the Eprix organisers, women weren’t allowed. They were fascinated by the idea that, living in London, I’d do anything so obviously worse as to come to their country where this was the biggest thing that’d happened. A sharp perspective on my own privilege.

The second year was a ticketing disaster: Race and concert attendance were parcelled together meaning the organisers believed they’d close to sold-out but next to no one arrived during the daytime, especially on the Friday (Friday is a day for family and mosque, as the first day of the Islamic weekend) and then thousands arriving for the evening’s entertainment. I somehow ended up in a mosh pit with the track marshals to a Lebanese rapper covering Bryan Adams’ ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’, if you were wondering what concerts in Saudi Arabia are like.

When the first western concerts happened in the Soviet Union, there was outrage. But it was something fans in the USSR loved and ushered in an era of greater openness and, ultimately, change. Whether that will happen with the introduction of international sports to Saudi Arabia, I don’t know, because I don’t have a crystal ball. But if you want to make sure that the 2030 Vision is sincere and does take steps to improve the lives of Saudi Arabians then having international scrutiny is by no means a bad thing.

“We’re not a political organisation. Sport should never be seen to be political.” So said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner when asked about F1’s plans to race in Saudi Arabia. His team, during Britain’s general election last year, used its factory to host a campaign visit for eventual winner Boris Johnson.

Formula 1 being used for political ends is not new. There will, no doubt, be some of that around the Jeddah race. I trust you’re smart enough to tell when it’s happening, the same way I assume no one imagines Putin turning up at the Sochi podium has magically resolved the frozen ethnic conflict 25 kilometres away.

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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88 comments on “I’ve been to races in Saudi Arabia: Here’s why I don’t oppose its grand prix”

  1. I can almost guarantee that you’ll get a bunch of stupid, ignorant comments from this article, but please I could get in first and say that this a great piece with lots of excellent points I hadn’t thought of. Thanks for writing it.

    1. I am really glad that @hazelsouthwell wrote this article, to add to the thoughts and ideas after @dieterrencken wrote a very solid article asking whether going to Saudi Arabia is a good idea.

      Since I think this is an important factor to consider with F1 having informed opinions to learn and think and discuss the matter always help @graham228221 @johnrkh. Good job for the RaceFans!

    2. Agreed. Truly writing that examines different perspectives – very rare and valuable. I also especially like that it emphasises the stupidity of saying ‘F1 is not political’, which is clearly nonsense. The sport (all major sports really) is intrinsically political such is its international makeup, volatile relationship with money and its competitive nature. This has been true all the way back to the 1930s!

    3. Should’ve said “inb4 comments attacking Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix”…

    4. Indeed, a well written piece.

      As a GCC resident (5 years earlier in the last decade and now fresh into my second stint), I can confirm that a lot of what you say in this piece about Saudi and its cities (from scrawny stray cats, run down areas away from the beaten tourist tracks and dusty Toyota Camry’s) applies right across the region.

  2. Racing in Saudi Arabia is political – and controversial – but it should be about the effect it has on the lives of Saudi citizens, not just the way it’s perceived in the west.

    This is a fair point, and a good one to open the article with – which is why it’s surprising that there is no further explanation of how exactly a Saudi GP will benefit Saudi citizens.

    If “Vision 2030” is about improving quality of life for the locals (and it should be alarming that a government feels it needs a branding exercise for this, rather than it being the purpose of government in the first place), then why is buying in a Grand Prix better than, say, funding educational opportunities for the overwhelmingly young (and rural) Saudi population?

    In terms of the argument that it will open Saudi Arabia up to international scrutiny, F1 hasn’t exactly been a towering success with this in the past. Grands Prix in Bahrain have been run mere miles away from where peaceful protesters have been brutalised and, in some cases, murdered. And as the article itself states, there is a decades-long ethnic conflict going on a short distance from where the Russian Grand Prix is held. It seems like the presence of F1 helps to sanitise these things, rather than throwing them into the spotlight.

    1. Yeah, this.

      Money has well and truly talked for the Saudi’s again, showing the rich can do anything and by and large get away with it.

      1. I completely agree @red-andy.

        There are some interesting points in this article. Surely though one of the main ideas of the Saudi policy is really to improve the country’s image. It’s all about this.

        Then I doubt most of the people attending this event will be poor agricultural workers or the like. It will mainly be the mega-wealthy in the blacked-out SUVs. F1 by its very nature attracts these echelons of society. There may be some token gestures to ordinary Saudis but not much else I expect.

        1. Yup:improving the image, not the real thing.

    2. @red-andy Politicians often use a branding exercise to show that this particular attempt to improve people’s lives (or be seen to be doing so) is different from the last time the government promised to do so and failed (by accident or design). I have my doubts about Vision 2030, but the fact it’s got an official label is not a reason for doubt.

  3. I think trying to bind politics with F1 is kind of pointless to begin with. It will be bait for social justice warrioring. F1 has raced in most questionable states, it even races in usa. Who cares, let em race.

    If we want to to change those states then F1 isn’t the tool to use. But before that I would ask: who are we to force our will upon other countries?
    History shows either way those actions always happen in some USA style “bring democracy by bomb”. Or just some diplomacy, like the Dutch do, just for the trade, they couldn’t care less about human rights in those trades. It’s all self interest, in this case F1 just wants big money, point.

    1. Seems like we can trade with Saudi Arabia, buy their oil, sell them lamb, cars, airliners, electronics and weapons. Oh, and Nandos.

      But racing cars over there is off limits.

      Sure, F1 is trying to make a buck. But so are Western governments (both sides of the political divide), car manufacturers, oil traders, farmers, Fernando Duarte…

      F1 has put it’s own head in the #WeRaceAsOne noose.

  4. I’m sure they’ll re-arrange the stonings, crucifixions (1 of a minor) and dis-memberments for the Grand Prix weekend so that none of the F1 circus are inconvenienced by the sights.

    It reminds me of the story of Stalin visiting a “hospital” (political prison) where the “patients” were all reading books upside down (they were all executed afterwards). I doubt there will be any protests on the race weekend (the 2011 Bahrain protesters are probably still in jail: Human Rights Watch details that the HR situation has worsened since 2011).

    But then, as other sites have detailed, Saudi is only slightly worse than Russia or China on the HR abuses index so that’s all fine as far as F1’s ethics go: as long as the visitors feel comfortable (and can delude themselves), then there’s not a problem it seems.

    Off you go! Have a great weekend there! If there’s any trouble then I’m sure Boris will lie and make your situation worse (spare a thought for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on the other side of the Gulf).

    1. I’m not sure if you’re pointedly bringing up Stalin there (never quite sure who knows where I’m from) but I really do not appreciate being compared to him.

      1. Strange that you take offence at a Stalin reference which doesn’t even seem to be directed at you (I have no idea of your heritage, and don’t see it as relevant), but just ignore the main point of the argument.

        Please don’t call me names, just because I am defending murder and torture.

        1. Murder and torture indeed.

        2. Well I’m glad you don’t see it as relevant, I’ll just stop having it then.

    2. Stalin. Visiting. A. Prison…. You’re heavily brainwashed and you just don’t know a thing about Stalin and have no idea what has happened then… Ooops, sorry – I almost forgot – of course many billions of Soviet citizens were executed by Stalin personally! So the logical question is – if they all were executed who told you that story? Long live anglosax bile propaganda, comrade!

  5. Conservatives don’t seem to understand that we all live in this planet together, you can’t just hide your problems and ignore them. Like climate change and injustices we need to face them head on. I guarantee you the more open minded people are the less wars and the less problems we will face. Great article hopefully the drivers continue to use their platforms to shine light on those who are stuck in the darkness

  6. I don’t agree that a Grand Prix is Saudi Arabia is the right thing to do, or the right message.

    But I do concede that this article has opened my eyes to aspects I had not considered before and is written from the perspective of someone with far more experience than I have. It was a thought provoking and interesting read, thank you.

  7. Excellent article making a well thought out case. Having big international events might actually help situation but my question is if will it be safe? When someone placed a doodle in a newspaper in my country the foreign ministry advised me NOT to go there to do my job as planned because my nationality would place my in excessive risk. I can only imagine that the French foreign ministry will do the same right now. Just imagine an F1 race at which French citizens would risk their lives to participate. Or Germans, British, any nationality. If you believe that’s unlikely I would say it’s much more likely someone pokes to the fire exactly BECAUSE the race is held.

    1. I think that as with going to the Sochi race, in Saudi Arabia, its likely to be safe enough for visitors, since the regime will surely use enough police force to make sure nothing untoward happens during that weekend anywhere near the track or near the areas where tourists/visitors are OmegaWave.

  8. As long as Saudi Arabia funds and spreads extremist religious hatred, segregation and terrorism around the world, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t have the privilige of being allowed to organise an international sporting event.

    Your list omitted institutionalized Religious intolerance, religious exclusion and racism.

    Honestly the worst thing is that it is seem as “politically correct” to embrace the most vile dogma’s as being equal, especially after the decennia people had to fight and give their lives for actual freedom and equality in other places in the world, and more importantly against countries where this idea of “makeable society” comes from.

    But hey the Fifa led the way showing the world that even in the 21st century the only thing important is money even when old fashioned slavery is being used.

  9. There’s the things everyone knows about Saudi Arabia: the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the guardianship scheme that prevents women from making career, financial or travel choices without permission from a male relative or spouse, the total intolerance of LGBTQ+ people, the documented use of torture as a method of interrogation, arrests of human rights activists and the brutally catastrophic war in Yemen

    You have to add to that list that they have also lately :
    – Funded terrorist groups involved in Syria & Libya (and previously in Afghanistan & Iraq).
    – Forced an embargo to Qatar. Let’s not forget that how they obtained the F1 TV rights when they’ve hacked the signal of Bein Sport channel and retransmit it on the frequency of the BoutQ (Be Out Qatar) channel in the MENA region which caused massive losses for the Qatari channel and forced it to give up on F1.
    – Kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister and forced him to resign publicly on TV blaming Iran, he was later released in a deal brokered by France.
    – Jamal Khashoggi is one of many political opponents who disappeared in the same way according to the London based Saudi human rights activist Ghanem al-Dosari who himself was attacked once in front of Harrods ! Al-Dosari was also harassed and hacked in the same way Jeff Bezos , the owner of the Washington Post (employer of Khashoggi), phone was hacked which led to expose details of his private life that ended his marriage.

    In a nutshell, this is not about the conservative culture, LGBT/human rights abuses… etc. The problem is bigger than that. F1 has associated itself with a terroristic regime which is relentlessly involved in Mafia type actions and can silence everyone with the petrodollar money. What else after this ? The 2023 Ndrangheta GP

    1. Which one of those points she or you mentions is not present in the western world. It’s the same rubbish every westerner brings up, the east this and the east that, every issue you see there is present everywhere. To a different degree, yes, but present nonetheless.

      1. Quite so. We sit here in the UK condemning the rest of the world whilst a trip outside our castle’s drawbridge carries the threat of a £10k fine based upon government lies. They peddle fear based upon computer projections that are so out of date that there is actual data proving them to be gross exaggerations. This is what to expect from a tinpot dictatorship, not one of the worlds oldest democracies.

        Today also coincidentally sees an article reminding us that there are unanswered questions for our security services around the death of Gareth Williams just over 10 years ago, sound a bit similar to the Khashoggi incident perhaps?


        Reading the naively polarised opinions here shows how easily the public are led by confirmation bias fed to them by the media. It’s a competitive world out there and the best we can do is to try and talk to those who we see as wrong, not banish them from the conversation based upon who sponsors the ‘word’.

        All the above does mean I do not condemn Saudi abuses of human rights, I do, just heartened to see things are moving in the right direction, unlike here in the UK where the opposite is happening.

        1. I’ve read lots of rubbish about COVID-19 etc, but you take the tin-foil hat prize.

          It’s like falling into the rabbit hole of facebook conspiracy theories, the UK is descending into fascism while Saudi Arabian’s are gaining human rights !! It’s alright to murder journalists that speak against you, just so long as another country has a part solved murder, that some basement keyboard warriors can invent theories about.

          Maybe get out your paranoid bubble and read some real newspapers, not just the echo chamber of social media.

      2. James Levy

        Which one of those points she or you mentions is not present in the western world

        I’ve never seen in my life a channel hacking the signal of a pay per view TV and transmitting it from Columbia/Cuba almost for free on an official satellite Arabsat which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia. This is not some IP TV server on the internet. This is an official satellite. This was once done by the Eritrean TV channel which were broadcasting champions league matches for free, but once they were discovered and suied by ART they were banned from the Arabsat satellite.

        I’ve never seen a head of state kidnapped in an official visit to a friendly state and the way they killed Khashoggi was just the icing on the cake.

        It’s the same rubbish every westerner brings up, the east this and the east that, every issue you see there is present everywhere. To a different degree, yes, but present nonetheless

        Why do you suppose I’m western ?

        1. Excuse my prejudgment of where your from, it’s just where most of these points come from. But question still remains, Which one of those points she or you mentions is not present in the western world? Women mistreatment/degraded? LGBT inequality? Torture as means of interrogation? Government profiting of the average man? Freedom of speech?

  10. Hmmm… in political decisionmaking, a look at history often seems a worthwile endeavour to gather information on what might be a good or bad decision. F1 has obviously held races (ot tried to) in authoritarian regimes before, what impact did it have? And if those impacts differ, e.g. South Africa 85 vs. Hungary 86 vs. Bahrain 2011, what are the driving factors between those differences in impact? How could F1 ensure being on the positive side of that?
    One thing seems certain, positive influence can only be had on people who get to actually participate in the event. Out of the three events I mentioned before, only the Hungarian GP enjoys occasional positive connotations, and it had 300k fans at the track, a good part of them paying no entry fee but rather scaling the fences.
    Will the 90% of Saudis who work in agriculture be allowed to be at the 2021 race? I doubt it. And even then, they’d still need to be inspired by it, which is yet another step.

    1. One thing seems certain, positive influence can only be had on people who get to actually participate in the event.

      Exactly @crammond If a fair share of the sharp commentators here were to attend the race, Im fairly sure their views wouldnt be that harsh towards the country after

      As for Saudis being allowed into their home grand prix, of course they will! The tickets are probably going to be really affordable too. The main problem is (as you mentioned) would they be inspired and want to go? would they find F1 racing interesting enough to spend the weekend watching it? I think the 70% between 15-30 will find it interesting, I can see it getting more or else the same pull that Bahrain/UAE has on its citizens… with most people opting for the race day only ticket

  11. ironic that you don’t oppose the grand prix when you, as a woman, probably won’t be allowed to go

  12. Your 2nd paragraph is why we shouldn’t be racing in Saudi Arabia no question about it.

    1. Indeed @canadianjosh. This sums it up.

      I don’t think ever, in following F1 for over 30 years, do I recall any one topic causing such outrage. This is not a good decision.

    2. “Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the Play?”

  13. What does a regime have to do before F1 says No thanks? Racism is unacceptable in F1, but treating women as little more than children or pets is OK? Torturing and even crucifying opponents is OK? Martin Luther King famously said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. But we should avert our eyes from the murderous Saudi regime…?

    Hazel seems to suggest that western artists performing in Soviet Russia contributed to the end of the regime, and that western enterprise will similarly loosen the Saudi sensibilities. This is absurd. She is quite right, however, that sport is political. The Saudis know this. Do we?

    No country is perfect, but that does not mean we should give up on principles and standards. If drivers are happy to take a knee against racism, and then jet off to Saudi to race, they are hypocrites.

    1. I think that for that there are only a few things to do @rsp123. 1) be an actually internationally recognized country. And signed up with the FIA. 2) be able to guarantee a safe environment (i.e. being in the middle of a war that is raging around the track is a no go), which probably also means having crime under control to some extent (a reason why Sao Paulo is currently not likely to be back, apart from the local politics). and 3) pay enough money to race there.

      All the rest seems to be more or less optional.

    2. Actually there is a lot being said in Russia about the impact of rock’n’roll on when and how the regime has fallen.
      Might or might not be a factor, hard to gauge these things, but I’m sure if you’d have told any of the people that attended the shows that you thought it’s a bad idea – you’d be in for a very.. non-verbal argument :)

      Why I’m bringing this up is… The arguments against the sports-washing, as it seems from my (rather poorly informed) chair seem to largely ignore the very complex relationship between a state and a society.

      And it’s a part of the author’s point, the way I got it anyway.

      Is F1 doing a favour to the regime? Hard to argue that it does, I suppose.
      Is F1 doing a favour to the people? Well, I like to think it does that, too.
      Now I imagine it will be very hard to understand the relationship between those two facts and what the bottom-line effect will be, perhaps even for the Saudi leaders, and for us over here – doubly so.

      There’s probably some internal dynamics we’re not aware of, and there are probably people in SA that would really wish that the minders of their wellbeing would choose a different way to do so.

      Then again, there are probably those in SA for whom the race would be adding to their misery.

      What I’m saying I guess, is we know very little, and most comments I read here come from people who had no experience dealing with anything like that in their country (neither did I, really), so maybe it’s helpful to listen to a different view.

      1. Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian state. The public do not elect their leaders. The regime has an iron grip on daily life, and is using sport and other events to distract from the ghastly things that are going on, and to get the international community to provide a fig leaf of respectability. The Nazis did the same thing with the Olympics in 1936. Today we call that sportwashing. If holding an F1 race were to edge the country nearer freedom or democracy the regime would cancel it right away.

        If F1 goes to KSA today, then there can be no regime, anywhere, ever, that F1 would stay away from. As the saying goes, you are judged on the company you keep. A shameful day indeed.

  14. Interesting article, enjoyed reading it. I do feel F1 shouldn’t be racing there, or be sponsored by Aramco.

    Contradictory messaging.

  15. A sport (or entertainment, whatever you want to call it) that F1 has often been unflatteringly compared with in recent times, professional wrestling (specifically WWE) did this in 2018. They signed a 10-year-deal with KSA and I remember their first event there was all about the progress that they’ve made (like women driving cars) and how WWE could project positive change there. This despite their Saudi events not allowing women and people of Syrian descent to wrestle there.

    What I want to say is that F1 will likely go the same way. The fact that their comments on how F1 will benefit KSA came AFTER the deal was signed speaks volumes. There’s no vision. F1 never had any vision for cancelling racism and discrimination in the first place. And no, the fact that an F1 race takes place in Sochi is not a good argument for why it should happen in KSA. Two wrongs don’t a right make.

    If F1 races in KSA next year and refuses to publicly talk about discrimination in the form of racism, sexism and homophobia, they will lose all my support. Yes, I know, ‘when in Rome, do as Romans do’, but I’m pretty sure the Huns and Ostrogoths didn’t subscribe to those views. And some of them did all right for themselves. F1 does not need KSA. It’s the easy way out for them.

  16. I dunno, as a homo I feel unsafe going to a country I can be arrested – or worse, for being myself. I suppose it’s up to F1 to go to these places and celebrate them and down to me whether I want to risk my freedoms and life, but in the face of the ‘we race as one’ thing it just makes me feel that isn’t entirely true.

    1. I see what you are saying @rocketpanda, but as the article mentions, that would have to be part of the ‘truce’/’facade’ at such an event: that at least within the F1 bubble, being female, or lbqt cannot be a problem, especially with that ‘we race as one’ label – if they don’t ensure that, absolutely that would be a disgrace, and make the label loose just about any value it has.

      But with it, just like the article mentions how the author, by being a woman working as an (independent) journalist there, was a point of reference and inspiration, representation can help (though of course with motorsport being so conservative that even outside of Saudi Arabia, we have to my knowledge (hardly?) anyone in the paddock being openly gay …).

      In the end, I remain skeptical, though clearly F1 will go there whatever I think, but this article made me pick up a bit of hope in that respect.

      1. That’s part of the contentious issue though isn’t it, that it’s a facade. This fake, plastic appearance that everything’s okay and we’re all friends and inclusive when actually some of these places are absolutely not, and if it wasn’t for the attention of the cameras you’d be in jail or worse. It just exposes the ‘we race as one’ as having a lot of fine print.

      2. Well @bosyber,

        we have to my knowledge (hardly?) anyone in the paddock being openly gay

        since Hazel actually is, that is something for formula E at least.

        I really get what you saying, and I think that in your position I would also be really reluctant to travel to a place like this, or Russia, Abu Dhabi etc where that is so harshly prosecuted.

        A few days ago Hazel wrote on Twitter that the curious thing was that actually getting a room together with your girlfriend, kissing etc (or being with your boyfriend for a man) is easier than being there as an unmarried male+female together since the idea of openly being LGBTQ+ doesn’t register with people at all.

        1. sorry forgot to inlcude the @rocketpanda Adam

          1. Lol, I am the rocketpanda.

            Yeah, the thing there is that it’s not an openly done thing because you literally can get arrested, harshly fined or worse for doing it – like that’s not even hyperbole it’s easily found information. In the F1 ‘bubble’ and just being associated with it probably brings some safety but without that bubble I can’t see it being a safe place at all. That identity would have to be 100% secret outside that bubble.

            Going there alone doesn’t really endorse that intolerance but it doesn’t stand against it either – it does kinda say we’re okay with it as long as we don’t look at it, and with the we race as one initiative going at the same time it just makes that look extremely performative. How can F1 argue it stands against racism and stands for diversity and equality while staying silent in the face of those that don’t? Speaking as LGBT, I don’t feel comfortable supporting a race, let alone travelling to one, that I know realistically is totally intolerant of me and as a fan I find it worrying F1 is okay with that.

          2. @rocketpanda, @bascb, that’s definitely why I too am sceptical.

    2. @rocketpanda That for me is the main issue. @hazelsouthwell‘s article is excellent and well-argued, I respect the fact she’s reporting that she has been able to attend Formula E events. However I’m opposed to any national regime that explicitly curbs the citizen rights of some sections of its population, women, LGBTQ+, black (in South Africa in the past). Attending that event, physically or even virtually, seems like endorsing that exclusion. I don’t see how momentarily ‘lifting’ restrictions for an international sports event is much better. It’s like seeing ‘we won’t get you this time.’ That’s a lurking threat and, as you say, generates apprehension over who you yourself are, enough to dissuade you from going. That is not ‘racing as one.’

      1. More I think about it F1 can either have this race or support its we race as one initiative – but not both, as going there directly contradicts its mission objectives. If F1 really does want to ‘stand up’ in the fight against racism, inequality and champion diversity – as it insists on that video of the drivers before every race, then it can’t realistically go to a place where those things are outright prohibited – the values here are not compatibile with the values F1 wishes to have.

        Unless it’s all for show, of course.

  17. GtisBetter (@)
    7th November 2020, 13:51

    It’s all money first and people second and F1 is just confirming this is a good way to look at things and the fans also. They don’t spend less time and money on F1, while they keep increasing the races in terrible regimes and normalising relationships with them, condition the name of the country with positive PR in peoples minds.

    It’s an illusion that sport and politics are separate, while you go around waving national flags, playing national anthems and using it as a way to promote your country while negative stories are not allowed. Everybody does their part, looking away and playing with the hosts. Just like everybody plays nice with Putin, who is a war criminal and a mass murderer of innocent civilians both at home and abroad. Just shakes hands and laugh. Well, what’s another criminal and oppressor. We already visit plenty in the name of money. Sure let’s race.

  18. There’s a long history of brutal, evil regimes around the world using sporting events to buy legitimacy. This will be no different.

    You’ve got to wonder why the Saudi’s are spending their oil money on F1. Is it to better the lives of women in their nation? Or is it relieve some of the international pressure caused by their torturing, human trafficking and genocide in Yemen, thus allowing those atrocities to continue?

    I’ll concede the authors point that this event might bring a quantum of good for women racing drivers. Perhaps that will off-set the suffering of the slaves used to build the facility?

    1. Perhaps that will off-set the suffering of the slaves used to build the facility?”

      Rofl! :D

  19. I appreciate that some people from western countries care about others’ life in other countries (in this case, Saudi Arabia). However, it is just weird (yes, weird) to use F1 as a tool to push for changes.

    Why and how is this thing weird? Well, think about this:

    What if some people in Asia start a campaign to push F1 out of UK, because UK government has done poorly in controlling COVID-19? “F1 should only be held in countries with good public health systems with shown success in the pandemic, such as Vietnam, Singapore, China, Japan, and maybe Australia (and we can bring back Korea GP, and add a New Zealand GP as well). Holding F1 races in countries with high COVID-19 case numbers is essentially supporting those countries to continue to let the virus spread. We need to punish those governments and push for a change.”

    1. So to extend your logic, no country should criticise or try to change the policies of another country.

      So no UN, no embassies, no diplomats, just do what you want so long as you keep it behind your borders. What a lovely idea, for the lucky ones in a liberal democracy.

      1. Wrong. You did not get my point. Criticizing is welcome. I was criticizing some countries for their handling of COVID-19.

        What I am opposed to is using F1 as a tool. Of course you can criticize. But most “sanctions” do not make sense.

        Think about this: “I want to give sanctions to UK to push a change in their government. Let us deprive their favorite things. How about F1 and soccer?”

  20. Agreed, Hazel.

  21. petebaldwin (@)
    7th November 2020, 15:52

    “I trust you’re smart enough to tell when it’s happening“

    That’s where is all falls down. If something is said or shown publicly, lots will choose to believe it without giving it any thought. That’s why we have lots of people in America who are taking a break from shouting about how great democracy is to protest and shout “stop the count.”

  22. Jack (@jackisthestig)
    7th November 2020, 16:45

    I’m just not very excited about yet another dull street race in a country that doesn’t care about F1, especially when we’ve recently had races at Imola, Mugello and the Nurburgring.

  23. Hazel, you paint a picture of Saudi Arabia as a nice enough country, with a bit of inequality and poverty, but doesn’t everywhere. But unlike other countries, they also murder and dismember journalists, behead atheists and apostates, arrest and kill LGBTQ+ people, merely for being.

    You acknowledge all this and have previously said you are LGBTQ+, but do you tell people or the authorities in Saudia Arabia, have you ever been asked? You claim to feel safe, or at least be fearless, is this because you are incognito?

    You also claim that you go where you like and write what you want, how confident are you in pushing the limits of Saudi Arabia? Do you go outside the tourist, international area, alone. Have you written anything critical of the regime, do you seriously believe that what you and everybody else writes isn’t monitored and noted.

    How do you account for the murdered journalists, LGBTQ+, atheists, political dissenters? Are they just unlucky, bad people, or even deserving of their fate?

    Appeasement of a tyranical regime, never works, or at least never encourages them to change. Why should we give Saudi Arabia the veneer of normality by racing there.

    1. I literally list a set of criticisms of the regime at the start of this article, which I wrote.

      1. Listing a set of criticisms isn’t the same as addressing them. You listed them, then just ignored or glossed over them in your article.

        Maybe you can go to a place and look at the sights and eat the cuisine, but turn a blind eye to anything uncomfortable, or worse defend outright murder and legalised torture.

        I can’t and won’t, and I believe that F1 will lose and lot of fans over this issue.

        1. ^This!

        2. Well said @tambeau. You make a very good point.

        3. Well said!!

  24. When the first western concerts happened in the Soviet Union, there was outrage. But it was something fans in the USSR loved and ushered in an era of greater openness and, ultimately, change.

    Just like the concerts in Sun City during the apartheid years in South Africa, they brought about greater openness and, ultimately, change. Or was it the boycotts and condemnation that brought about change?

    F1 raced in South Africa then, but the FIA eventually conceded that apartheid and F1 were incompatible and stopped going there. How is Saudia Arabia any different ???

    1. @tambeau

      How is Saudia Arabia any different ???

      Are China, Russia and Turkey any different though?

      1. Turkey until recently was, but given their recent slide into dictatorship, not any more. So I would say that China, Russia and Turkey aren’t any different.

        Not sure what your point is, if you agree or disagree. I certainly wouldn’t visit any of these countries.

  25. So here’s the thing. This Grand Prix doesn’t take place for the people. It doesn’t take place to promote unity. It doesn’t take place for the world to find out and/or send a message against the many wrongdoings of the Saudi regime.

    It is funded by the regime, and it exists solely to promote and further legitimize the regime, make no mistake on this. If history for other events are anything to go by, it will be spearheaded by “positive” messaging straight from the regime to show us how progressive Saudi-Arabia is becoming. How welcoming to women they are now.

    But will it stop any of the atrocities the regime executes on a daily basis? Will it release the wrongfully imprisoned? Will it change anything for the LGBTQIA people in Saudi-Arabia? Will it change anything for Jews, Christians, Atheists, in Saudi-Arabia?

    Formula 1 isn’t there to bring international scrutiny to the country, Saudi-Arabia’s regime wants legitimacy, international legitimacy for its regime. F1 is being paid to go there by the regime, not to liberate the country, but to legitimize the regime.

  26. @hazelsouthwell I sincerely appreciate you writing this article and I value your perspective, but I still plan to boycott the race. I’ll explain why.

    You mention that western concerts ultimately ushered in an era of change. This is not correct. While concerts occurred during an era where change was happening, they were not responsible for the change. The change occurred because the west bankrupted the soviet system in a series of arms and space races. The collapse of the soviet system was inevitable once the coffers began to run dry. The concerts were an attempt to temporarily pacify the citizens and simultaneously attempt to legitimize the regime so that foreign investors would pump new capital in without feeling guilty.

    While the situation in Saudi is similar in some ways (legitimization of a regime), it is also quite different. Saudi is in no danger of going bankrupt. They will be able to pay to maintain their control over the country for many years to come. They also have an advantage that the soviet oligarchs did not have: they have religion on their side. Those who can not be paid to enforce the regime’s policies can be influenced by fervent adherence to religion. This is in someways much more powerful than currency. But make no mistake. The Saudi regimes goals with events like this are to a 21st century version of what the soviets attempted. But in this modern, connected age they are attempting to grow their international clout. Clout = currency. Currency = power. Power allows them to become the dominant player in the region by making sure other powers (western and eastern) stay on the sidelines.

    So I will not be viewing something which attempts to legitimize this regime and give it increased clout on the world stage. I take the same stance with other races as well (China, Azerbaijan for example) so this is not unique to this race.

    1. +1, @g-funk.

      F1 isn’t constructing any Aramco barriers…

  27. Outstanding journalism, thank you

  28. inb4 someone attacks Saudi Arabia or the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix announcement
    Had to say this. That’s it. That’s it.

  29. I can see some interesting points in the article, but also some weak points.
    The comparison with music concerts in former communist block is fatally flawed. The rock music has always been connected with being free and rebelious, from early rock’n’roll to punk. Communist governments supressed it, banning more popular (and less pliable) local bands and not allowing western music to be played on TV/radio. When I wanted to have records by Pink Floyd, I spread some casette tapes among friends and they asked their friends etc., hoping that it will eventually reach someone who managed to get their hands on a desired record. For some records, it took years before a casette returned back to me. Any music coming from the West was precious to us. Thus the fact that, say, Depeche Mode had a concert in Prague in late 80’s was seen as a sign that the commies are weakening. It was a BIG think. (Just for the sake of completeness, an even bigger impact on outlook of young people came from folk musicians, travelling the country with their guitars and singing songs of freedom and being a decent human being in a hostile world.)
    Now, since when have F1 races been connected with freedom? When you see cars circling around, why would you think of freedom? Yes, we were also happy about the Hungary GP, but that’s because we were cut off from the West in so many ways. Still, it interested mostly F1 fans and did not carry political overtones, because F1 was not supressed and I routinely saw races on state TV.
    The connection between freedom and F1 (if any) is even weaker in non-communist dictatorial countries that rarely isolate citizens in this way. People do get to listen to foreign music and watch sports. Therefore, when F1 races are held in dictatorial countries, it is not felt as a weakening of the ruling class, and perhaps even the opposite. When you see a dictator in his dark glasses and luxurious suite, and bosses of F1, do you think that you see opposites, or do you get the feeling that they are of similar ink? People of the same upper class that would find a lot in common over their glass of champaigne?

    That said, I do not see anything particularly explosive about F1 going to Saudi Arabia. It is, after all, just an entertainment show. I have much bigger problem with Saudi Arabia being among our close allies. Even the famous human rights exponent Vaclav Havel did not speak of them when it came to visiting Saudi Arabia. If we can stand for that (and unfortunately I do not see much we can do about it), then F1 should not dent our conscience much. But then again, it is much easier to speak against F1 than against your own government.

    1. Just as a point of correction: western music was totally banned in Saudi Arabia until recently and the first western concerts came with the 2018 E-Prix.

  30. Dick Ansell (rpaco)
    8th November 2020, 11:19

    Great article. I must say I admire your guts.

  31. I suspect Liberty Media would have been pleased to win the contract to organize the1936 Berlin Olympics and had no compunction about doing so.

  32. Frankly absurd article from @hazelsouthwell ; not the first time she’s expressed ill-considered views on sport and politics IMO.

    Which country has been improved by F1? Ask the Muslims in Chinese concentration camps, journalists in Azerbaijan, Human rights protesters in Bahrain or gays in Russia.

    Suggesting a GP is nice for the people as a way of justifying the complicity in sportswashing atrocities is totally bonkers.

    The attendees at the GP will not be the oppressed, it will be politicians and well-connected businessmen. Drivers and F1 delegates will shake hands with a murderous dictator, providing cover and a convenient photo-op.

    The problem here is the hypocrisy. How can F1 claim to be “apolitical” while trying to score good-guy points through performative gestures such as BLM and #weraceasone?! (I support these initiatives).

    It’s about profit maximization every time. And writers like Hazel naively justify it.

    Furious and disappointed.

    1. Roberto Moreno
      10th November 2020, 1:41

      I largely agree with you but let’s not trivialise things here. Russia, China, Azerbaijan and Turkey certainly are not democratic countries but nothing, maybe North Korea, is on the level Saudi Arabia is. This is a step beyond everything.

  33. Bookmark deleted

    ‘There’s the things everyone knows about Saudi Arabia: the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the guardianship scheme that prevents women from making career, financial or travel choices without permission from a male relative or spouse, the total intolerance of LGBTQ+ people, the documented use of torture as a method of interrogation, arrests of human rights activists and the brutally catastrophic war in Yemen. There’s the oil-based profiteering that’s unquestionably helped destroy the earth’s climate, the abuse of migrant workers, mostly from the Philippines, and connections with global terrorism.’

    There is nothing in the world to outweigh this. Absolutly nothing.

    1. The usual whataboutism from Western countries

      the guardianship scheme that prevents women from making career

      MBS reversed this recently, against the wishes of the ultraconservative cleric bloc of the country.

      But westerners won’t be happy till its 2020 liberal bastion I guess. Never mind that most of those countries were socially conservative at some point too.

      the total intolerance of LGBTQ+ people

      Yeah cos that was fine Russia lol. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia (fan favourite) and Singapore too. Same goes for Abu Dhabi.

      There’s the oil-based profiteering that’s unquestionably helped destroy the earth’s climate,

      Sure, cos industrialized western countries (many former large empires) haven’t been burning carbon for centuries before? Also this is F1, if you’re anti carbon, you’re watching the wrong sport lolol, 50% thermal efficiency or no.

      arrests of human rights activists

      China, US, UK, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Bahrain, UAE have all done the same.

      the brutally catastrophic war in Yemen.

      Cos US, UK, Russia haven’t launched wars in the last two decades before right?

  34. In dozens of years I have never read an article on Formula 1 so stupid, so false, so offensive, so immoral as this one.
    Many dollars or euros must have been received by the author in her bank account to write this disgusting pamphlet in support of the billionaire owners of Saudi Arabia. Because that’s what the article is about, very cleverly disguised as a progressive and politically correct text, a crude propaganda attempt to justify that in one of the most reactionary countries in the world (its owner sheiks, not its people who are also victims of them) whose authorities they finance radical Islamist terrorism all over the world and claim by organizing events like this to be considered a “normal” country.
    The company that owns F1 is also disgusting. She has shown, once again, her absolute immorality.

    1. And yet you never addressed any of her points, only “wah wah she must be paid off”. :)

  35. connections with global terrorism

    Terrorism is the word used by those who have power to describe the actions and the fighting of those who do not have power (for example, in KSA being an atheist is officially considered a form of terrorism). Therefore the use of the word terrorism is either hypocritical or ignorant (or both). Mainstream political sources are going to keep using it to further their agendas no matter what, but it would be nice if we could avoid the use of such a nasty word in a website devoted to racing.

    PS: An honest alternative would be to say that not just the KSA, but also every other country that hosts F1 races has “connections with global terrorism”, but I don’t think that would be very wise for racefans RP.

  36. Roberto Moreno
    10th November 2020, 1:38

    I am not going to be as cynical as this author and ignore the vast list of human rights abuses of this country which is only second to Nazi Germany. I think she would be perfectly fine with a 1936 Berlin GP too as long as we had a few woman driving.

    But, just to not repeat the obvious (not so obvious to the author, apparently), from the point of view of the sport this race is a disgrace. We have a queue of dozens of tracks with history, tradition, exciting layouts which are in countries where people actually care about F1. To see yet another Tilkeodrome in a street circuit that offers absolutely nothing to the calendar is already sad enough. To see this in a place that supportd terrorism, ethnic violence, treat women who are not Hazel as animals, and unlike every other dictatorship doesn’t even pretend to be a democracy, is beyond depressing.

    I am not going to concede this article is well written, good research or whatever despite the ghastly flawed perspective. Because it isn’t. First, sports and politics should not mix, then she says sports can be a catalyst for political change. You need to decide what you are actually believe in here. First the Vision 2030 program is not about real change, but then it actually is. Finally, not that I am defending a murderous regime, but I actually am.

    You should be glad, as a journalist, to enjoy the freedom that Jamal Khashoogi didn’t. If Saudi Arabia is such an wonderful place, maybe you should consider moving there full time?

    1. So China race is fine then? Their freedom of press is even worse than Saudi Arabia.

      And of you think Saudi Arabia is second to Nazi Germany, then you haven’t studied history at all. But then again, Islamophobia runs rampant in this forum I guess.

  37. Rather silly to cop a view that SA will improve with the international spotlight on it. Does Southwell think the Saudis paid Liberty $$$ to host a race in order to subject itself to scrutiny and criticism? Nah…. they know Liberty and Carey (at the time) are all too eager to chase the money to help launder Saudi Arabia’s reputation.

    Some dumpster fires Liberty inherited – eg. Russia and China, but to be fair these two countries 8 years ago were far more “tame” than they are today with Putin’s relentess efforts to squash any vestige of democracy and China, well… doing its best to solidify itself as the worst place on earth. If there are contracts to be renewed, hopefully Liberty will find something within to have the backbone to walk away.

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