The GCC sportswashing: F1 Grand Prix continues despite human rights violations

bahrain grand prix protest

Photo credit: The Independent

14th March, 2022


F1 Grand Prix history with the GCC

In March 2022, the F1 Grand Prix race will take place in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In November, the UAE will host the last round of the racing season. 

Bahrain became the first GCC country to host a F1 race in 2004. Despite the initial doubts about F1 cars operating in a track built in the desert, as well as security concerns related to terrorism, the quality of the race left everyone with a positive impression. Following suit, the UAE hosted a race in 2009. Finally, Saudi Arabia became a host country when it staged the penultimate Grand Prix race of 2021, in Jeddah. 

Over the years, the Grand Prix in Bahrain has been a source of controversy because of the human rights record and political repression perpetrated by the government of Bahrain. During the 2011 pro-democracy uprising, the race was cancelled following the withdrawals of several drivers’ sponsors. Similarly, races staged in the UAE and Saudi Arabia are labelled to be a tactic to divert attention away from the human rights violations perpetrated by the government, otherwise known as “sportswashing”. 

A 10-year contract has also been signed to guarantee the GCC countries will stay on the calendar for future races: Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be among those countries staging F1 races from 2023 onwards. Saudi Arabia previously could not host any race due to the driving ban placed on women. Granting women the right to drive in 2018, however, cleared the way for Saudi Arabia to join the Grand Prix calendar as a host. Quoting Jean Todt, ex-president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), such a law is the signal that “changes are occurring”. However, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have clearly articulated how these legislative changes in Saudi Arabia, as well as in all GCC countries, do not bring progress on any practical level and denounced these disingenuous efforts. On the one hand, the guardianship system and the de facto regulations labelling women as second-class citizens halt every effort to make real progress for women empowerment and participation in society. On the other hand, the vague and overly-broad anti-terrorism and cybercrime law gives GCC governments the power to violently silence every dissenting voice. Today, 11 years after the pro-democracy uprising, thousands of political prisoners are still detained and endure degrading prison conditions and punitive measures. Among them, Dr. Abduljalil Al Singace and Hassan Mushaima are serving their prison sentence in Jau Prison, Bahrain, following an unfair trial based on fabricated charges. 

F1 seems to be aware of the abuses occurring within the GCC since, as explicitly stated by Jean Todt “motorsport has not to be used as a political platform. That is absolutely essential.” Is that an example of the F1 not taking responsibility for its actions? No matter what the answer is, economic interests must never prevail over human rights: human dignity and freedom are more important than political affairs. 

The GCC using F1 to sportswash systematic human rights violations 


The GCC countries have been repeatedly accused of “sportswashing”, referring to the practice of “an individual, group, corporation, or nation-state using sport to improve its reputation and public image”, primarily to divert attention away from a poor human rights record. Such practice appears to be in sharp contrast with F1’s public commitment to equality through its #WeRaceAsOne flag and the championship spirit the race should promote. International CSOs strongly condemn the F1 decision to hold its events in countries where torture and ill-treatments are embedded and encouraged by the governments to legitimise their repressive regimes and culture of impunity. It seems quite a controversial decision in light of the Formula One commitment to respect “internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally.” 

How can F1 be credible in the eyes of the international community when, while pretending “to promote inclusivity and diversity across race, gender and sexuality within the sport”, it stands by  countries that punish feminism, atheism and homosexuality with prison sentences? By turning a blind eye to the reality within GCC countries, F1 is not only breaching its corporate responsibility to protect human rights pursuant to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but it is also boycotting the pro-democracy demands of people of the GCC. People are arbitrarily arrested, detained, and tortured as punishment for having peacefully exercised their right to freedom of expression. Yet F1 contributes to covering up the government’s crimes, refusing to use its leverage to promote human rights. Although F1 proclaimed We take our responsibilities very seriously and have made our position on human rights and other issues clear to all our partners and host countries ….”, the international community and people of the Arab Gulf are still waiting for them to stand by their words. 

The F1 Grand Prix champion Lewis Hamilton recently spoke up about the ongoing situation in the GCC, stating that “as sports go to these places, they are duty bound to raise awareness for these issues. These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue.” The F1 should align itself with Hamilton’s statement and intensify the spotlight on the GCC by “raising the profile of the situation”. However, a real change is unlikely to happen in light of the election of the Emirati Mohammed Ben Sulayem to the presidency of FIA, who was awarded a Medal of Honour from the King of Bahrain in 2004. It is the first time that the FIA elected a non-European president since its establishment, a president who seems to have close ties with the abusive Bahraini ruling family. 

After decades of abuse and repression, political prisoners are still deprived of their freedom and tortured for fighting to defend the freedom and future of their countries. It is now time to break the silence and push for the release of all prisoners of conscience without conditions. CSOs, activists, human rights defenders, and all people from the Arab Gulf States are demanding F1 to speak up and join their fight to build a free and fair Arab world. We, at the ECDHR, join their cause and demand F1 to use its sport as a platform to achieve justice and equality.