Saudi Arabia: Formula 1 deal despite abuses

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The Formula One Group’s plans to take its flagship Grand Prix race to Saudi Arabia should be conditioned on freeing imprisoned women’s driving advocates and dropping the charges against them, Human Rights Watch said today.

Formula One has made human rights commitments, and should explain how the company’s operations will improve human rights in Saudi Arabia. Formula One leaders did not address pervasive Saudi human rights abuses in announcing their partnership on November 5, 2020.

“If Formula One is serious about upholding its own human rights policies, it needs to make a meaningful effort to assess conditions in Saudi Arabia and call for the release of women’s rights defenders who campaigned for women to be allowed to drive,” said Minky Worden, global initiatives director at Human Rights Watch. “There is no evidence that Formula One or the sport’s governing body, the FIA, has followed its own human rights policies in making its Saudi Arabia plans.”

Formula One’s announcement makes the company the latest in a growing list of sports events Saudi Arabia apparently is using to distract from the country’s serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Two years after the brazen murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the country has engaged in “sports-washing” by hosting a heavyweight world title boxing match, a high-profile desert motor race, and now a premier road race. 

Human Rights Watch will seek to counter Saudi Arabia’s “image laundering” through an outreach campaign to inform the entertainment and sports industries, including stars, teams, and athletes who are courted to play or perform, about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The campaign will call on them to tell the Saudi government that they won’t take Saudi government money and participate in events whose primary purpose is image laundering and deflecting attention from human rights abuses. Moreover, they should refuse to perform in Saudi Arabia until the government releases women’s rights activists and improves human rights.

A November 2019 report by Human Rights Watch documents ongoing arbitrary and abusive practices by Saudi authorities targeting dissidents and activists and the total lack of accountability by those responsible for abuses. Despite important social reforms, such as lifting travel restrictions for women in August, activists remain in jail. They include Loujain al-HathloulSamar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, and Nouf Abdulaziz, who advocated for women’s right to drive and an end to the discriminatory male guardianship system. These four women are among a dozen women’s rights activists who are still on trial for their activism, even though the authorities have made some concessions on women’s rights.

Before Formula One takes the Grand Prix to Saudi Arabia, it should insist on freedom for these activists, Human Rights Watch said.

Formula One has previously partnered with other countries seeking to build soft power and whitewash abysmal human rights records. In 2016, the Grand Prix was hosted by Azerbaijan, a country notorious for its repression of critics. Formula One took its signature race to Bahrain, sparking years of protests and the jailing of the activist Najah Yusuf, who was detained, tortured, and imprisoned, partly for her social media posts opposing the event. In February 2019, Human Rights Watch and 16 other human rights groups sent a letter to Formula One urging it to uphold its commitment to human rights in Bahrain and beyond.

Formula One’s “Human Rights Statement” says it will “focus our efforts in relation to those areas which are within our own direct influence.”

“The freedom of women’s driving advocates is absolutely within the company’s direct influence,” Worden said. “Formula One CEO Chase Carey, and FIA Chairman and President Jean Todt should insist to visit unjustly detained activists and publicly urge the Saudi government to set them free and to expand press freedom and human rights as a condition of their lucrative partnership.”

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