COMMENT: Should Formula 1 still race in Saudi Arabia?

This weekend the Formula 1 (F1) calendar arrives in Saudi Arabia for the second running of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

Saudi Arabia has been at war with Yemen for several years and this Saturday marks seven years since the first Saudi-led air campaign was launched on the neighbouring bordering country on March 26 2015 – meaning qualifying for the race on Sunday will take place on the seventh anniversary of the initial Saudi-led intervention.

“It’s sportswashing so that Saudi Arabia can wash their public image and ignore the mountains of civilian corpses and bombs they have dropped on hospitals and hide behind the facades of the F1 Grand Prix. This shouldn’t be happening,” said Philip McMahon, spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

On March 12 Saudi Arabia was firmly in the spotlight following the news that 81 men were executed in the largest mass execution in the modern history of the country.

Fans of the sport were critical of Saudi Arabia being added to the calendar with many fans reminding the sport’s governing body of their ‘we race as one’ slogan.

Sir Lewis Hamilton was the most vocal of the drivers with regard to the human rights issues facing certain people in Saudi Arabia at the last race held in the country in December 2021.

Hamilton said: “What I truly believe is that everyone should have equal rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement and there are places where that’s not allowed, there is places such as here.

“[For] the LGBT community there’s prison time, death penalty and restrictions for people for being themselves and I don’t believe in that.”

Women continue to face discrimination in Saudi Arabia with regard to marriage, family, divorce, and decisions relating to children, including child custody. However, on June 24 2018, women were given permission to drive legally.

On Thursday, Women’s Series driver Abbi Pulling and Saudi Arabian racer Aseel Al Hamad became the first women to drive an F1 car in Saudi Arabia as part of a demonstration held by Alpine. An act many fans see as sportswashing.

Seven-time World Champion Hamilton emphasised in a press conference in 2021 that as drivers they cannot choose where a race is held but it is important to raise awareness.

It is up to F1 to choose where a race is held or is not held as they have done with Russia. On February 25, F1 made the announcement that the 2022 Russian Grand Prix would not be going ahead.

The decision to cancel the Russian Grand Prix was made in light of the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.

“It is impossible to hold the Russian Grand Prix in the current circumstances,” said F1.

Individual drivers made their own statements following the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine before F1 decided to cancel the race.

“My own opinion is I should not go, I will not go. It’s wrong to race in the country,” said four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel.

Current World Champion Max Verstappen said: “When a country is at war, it is not right to race there.”

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