Formula 1 bosses keep burying their heads in increasingly bloody sand | Formula One

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the shows it must go on as Formula 1 again scrambles to ensure Saudi Arabia enjoys its day in the sun, despite rocket attacks. Evidence from Friday’s explosion, less than 10 miles from the track in Jeddah, is still strong. The veil of black smoke hangs over the city, a suitably indelible stain on the regime’s latest attempt at sport-washing.

As things stand, the race will continue on Sunday after Houthi rebels in Yemen hit an oil facility with a missile. The harsh truth of the Saudi-led coalition’s war with the rebels made F1’s bubble believe they operate in a vacuum where sports and politics simply don’t mix.

It is a transparent fiction that is exposed every time they visit this state and others on the calendar. Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings – and that is a generous description – are well known. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the state’s “ruthless crackdown on peaceful dissidents” since Mohammed bin-Salman was named crown prince.

They cite the regular use of torture on detainees. Same-sex relationships remain illegal, punishable by flogging or imprisonment. The state has played a lot with how “progressive” it has been to give women the right to drive. However, HRW reports that some prominent activists have spent nearly three years in prison for protesting peacefully for that right. They are still under suspended sentences, are not allowed to travel and are not allowed to carry out their human rights work.

All this the F1 was more than aware of when they first agreed to race in Saudi Arabia last year, but they were reminded in no uncertain terms exactly who they were dealing with just a few days before they arrived in the country. On March 12, the state executed 81 men in one day.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the UN believed that of the 81 convicted of “terror crimes”, 41 were from the Shia minority who had taken part in anti-government protests, and called for more political participation. The human rights organization Reprieve reports that 16 more people have been murdered since that mass execution.

Saudi Arabia talks about hosting the race in hopes of “changing perceptions”, in itself an acknowledgment of how hard it must reform its deserved grotesque image.

HRW has also reported that during its seven-year war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has “a sordid record of unlawful attacks targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in areas controlled by the Houthi armed group.” It should be noted that F1 has acted with unprecedented speed to cancel the Russian GP within hours of their invasion of Ukraine, but has not batted a wink at what is happening in Yemen.

Lewis Hamilton has spoken out about similar controversies in the past. Photo: Antonin Vincent/Shutterstock

F1’s repeated chorus when called upon to answer such criticism is that they believe they can bring about positive change in the countries they visit. Nelson Mandela took the opposite view, believing how important the sporting boycott was in ending apartheid in South Africa. Worse, there’s no evidence that anything ever changes.

Since the massive protests in Bahrain in 2011, F1 has continued in the country and human rights groups insist that the situation has worsened for anyone speaking out against the regime and that imprisonment and torture have in fact increased.

If anyone has any doubts about what this means, it was made unequivocally clear on Friday by Felix Jakens of Amnesty International. “This weekend’s Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia is a sport wash – plain and simple,” he said. “Despite promises of reform, human rights violations in Saudi Arabia are going from bad to worse. Dissent and free speech are now virtually non-existent.

“A lot of the world’s attention is currently focused on Ukraine, but the sports world should not limit its conscience to one conflict. Saudi Arabia should not be allowed free passage over its continued bombing of civilians in Yemen.”

So why is F1 in Saudi Arabia? In 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a day before the Australian GP was finally cancelled, Lewis Hamilton was the only driver to openly declare that he thought a mass gathering of more than 100,000 people was a bad idea. When asked why he thought F1 and the FIA ​​were going ahead with the race, his answer was simple and damningly accurate: “Cash is king,” he said.

F1’s 10-year deal to host the race in Saudi Arabia is worth a reported $900 million, while Saudi state oil company, Aramco, is an F1 “global partner” in a contract worth a reported $450 million. again in 10 years .

When the deals were closed, last year then-FIA president, Jean Todt, and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali were delighted to be pictured on the grid with a beaming grin with bin-Salman – the man US intelligence was identified as the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The real danger of sports washing is that it normalizes regimes over time. The fuss disappears when people come to accept the event, but normal life goes on in the background. This is the deal F1 made.

In this brave new world, the sport’s leadership gobbles up petrodollar-funded soma to soften the reality that they’re burying their heads in increasingly bloody sand.

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