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Don't let Saudi Arabia use a Formula 1 race to hide the abysmal way it treats its people

Abdullah Aljuraywi   

Don't let Saudi Arabia use a Formula 1 race to hide the abysmal way it treats its people
  • Saudi Arabia hosted its first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix on Sunday.
  • Saudi leaders want to use high-profile sporting events and other spectacles to distract from the grim realities of life in the kingdom.

On Sunday, December 5, 2021, Saudi Arabia will host its first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix. Thousands of motorsport fans will gather to watch the action in the coastal city of Jeddah, where a new circuit has just been completed.

Global pop stars like Justin Bieber and David Guetta will provide glittering entertainment — despite (so far) pleas from those hurt the most by Saudi abuses, like the fiancee of assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi, imploring Bieber not to perform for the man who ordered Khashoggi's murder, the Saudi crown prince.

The world is becoming familiar with Saudi Arabia hosting high-profile sporting events — iconic car rallies, golf tournaments, heavyweight boxing matches. Last month, Saudi Arabia expanded further, creating intense controversy when it acquired 80% of the English Premier League's Newcastle United Football Club using over US$409 million from the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund.

Such developments are a key feature of "Vision 2030," the agenda launched by the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as "MBS"). The kingdom has been investing heavily in sport and entertainment in a bid to attract foreign investment and diversify the country's economy.

It also aims to persuade us, the youth of Saudi Arabia — who make up two-thirds of the population — to believe that our generation has a bright, progressive future. A few weeks ago, for example, hundreds of thousands gathered in the capital for the opening parade of "Riyadh Season," a five-month cultural festival aiming to boost tourism, which featured the American rapper Pitbull.

But it also wants viewers around the world to ignore the grim realities of life in the kingdom, in an effort to whitewash — or "sportswash" — Saudi Arabia's international image, especially since the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 drew world attention to the authorities' gruesome human rights record.

Khashoggi's murder was not an isolated event, however. Since MBS came to power there has been an intensive crackdown against all forms of dissent, including widescale arbitrary arrests, the brutal torture of women's rights activists, unfair trials and prolonged detention for a vast number of prisoners of conscience, and the sinister targeting of dissidents abroad.

This relentless repression is causing increasing numbers of Saudi Arabians, especially young Saudis like me, to leave the country and seek asylum abroad.

If we want to breathe freely and have our voices heard we must say goodbye to our homeland, a place where tweeting peacefully on social media can swiftly lead to arrest and lengthy prison sentences. What use to us are motor races and pop concerts, when we have soaring youth unemployment and no freedom of expression?

Human-rights abuses are everywhere in Saudi Arabia, and the F1 Grand Prix will be no exception. Drivers will be racing on tracks built by migrant workers, who are widely mistreated under the country's kafala sponsorship system, sometimes described as modern slavery because of the way it systematically violates migrant workers' fundamental rights.

The track is just a few miles away from one of Saudi Arabia's notorious political prisons, Dhahban. It was here that Musa al-Qarni, a campaigner for reform, was murdered in October, with injuries to his skull. His death highlighted the horrific abuse, and often torture, suffered by prisoners of conscience in Saudi jails.

Dhahban is also where the award-winning human-rights defender Waleed Abu al-Khair is held, and women's rights activists like Samar Badawi were detained until earlier this year, having been imprisoned since 2018. Although they have now been released, the women remain subject to harsh restrictions such as travel, work and social media bans, thus silencing their activism.

Last month, the most successful driver in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton, spoke out ahead of the Grand Prix in Jeddah to voice concern and urge "scrutiny" over Saudi abuses. Hamilton's comments followed a joint campaign by several NGOs urging him to reconsider his participation and make a stand for human rights.

Ahead of the Formula 1 race this weekend, more leaders in sport, in government and from the general public must follow Hamilton's lead and speak out to ensure that Saudi Arabia cannot use the event to sportswash its abysmal human-rights record.

Events like the F1 Grand Prix should not be happening in places like my country where there is no freedom of speech or thought. Their presence serves only to distract attention from the regime's brutal crimes.

But since it is now going ahead, all those involved, from fans to drivers to sponsors and other entertainers, should use whatever leverage they have to speak out about the grim human rights situation in my country, for the sake of a better future for my generation.

Abdullah Aljuraywi is a Saudi activist and director of communications of UK-based NGO ALQST for Human Rights.