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Saudi Arabia: F1 Events Risk Whitewashing Abuses

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The Saudi government is using the inaugural Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and associated concerts and events between December 3 and 5, 2021, to deflect attention from its pervasive human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

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To live up to its human rights commitments and avoid contributing to laundering the Saudi government’s reputation, the Formula One Group and participating artists should use this occasion to publicly urge Saudi authorities to free unjustly detained Saudi dissidents and human rights activists, including those detained or placed under restrictions for advocating the right to drive, or refuse to participate in Formula 1 events. On November 29, Human Rights Watch wrote to Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali, Executive Chairman Chase Carey, and Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) President Jean Todt to request a meeting about Saudi Arabia’s human rights crisis.

“The Saudi government is going all out to bury its egregious human rights abuses beneath public spectacles and sporting events,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless they express concerns over Saudi Arabia’s serious abuses, Formula One and participating performers risk bolstering the Saudi government’s well-funded efforts to whitewash its image despite a significant increase in repression over the last few years.”

Under the government effectively headed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has experienced the worst period of repression in its modern history. Given the unprecedented criticism it has faced in recent years for its rights violations, the Saudi government has recognized that hosting global celebrities and major entertainment and sporting events is a powerful means to launder its reputation. Among the headline acts set to perform at the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, A$AP Rocky, and David Guetta. Human Rights Watch has urged Bieber and others to speak out publicly on rights issues or not to participate.

Since 2017, authorities have arbitrarily detained dozens of political dissidents, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and others. Prison authorities torture detainees and the authorities subject some of their families to broad collective punishment.

In the past year, Saudi authorities released the prominent women’s rights activists Loujain al-HathloulNassima al-SadahSamar Badawi, and Nouf Abdelaziz, after unjustly detaining them for nearly three years on charges that define their human rights activities as crimes. The four women, alongside others also since released, had long campaigned for women’s right to drive, a reform the Saudi government introduced just weeks after it embarked on a large-scale coordinated crackdown against the women’s rights movement. The activists remain under suspended sentences, barred from traveling, and prohibited from pursuing their human rights work or speaking out about their treatment in detention.

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The Saudi government also continues to flout international accountability for the brutal murder by state agents of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Despite some reforms for women and youth, ongoing abuses demonstrate that the rule of law in Saudi Arabia remains weak and can be undermined at will by the country’s political leadership. 

As a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator and to offset the scrutiny and reporting of human rights organizations and domestic activists on human rights, Saudi Arabia is spending billions of dollars hosting major international events. While these initiatives can be used for beneficial purposes, Saudi Arabia is using these government-funded events with celebrities, artists, and athletes to whitewash its poor human rights record and deflect efforts to hold its leadership accountable for these abuses. Since Khashoggi’s murder, several celebrities and social media influencers have declined to participate in events in Saudi Arabia, citing its terrible human rights record. They include: Nicki MinajEmily RatajkowskiMartha HuntJohn Cena, and Daniel Bryan. Richard Branson suspended his partnership with Saudi Arabia for his space tourism venture. In March 2019, the talent agency Endeavour returned a $400 million investment by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Businesses, including sporting bodies, and celebrities are increasingly under pressure from fans and sponsors not to bring major events to rights abusing hosts seeking to whitewash their reputations, including Saudi Arabia.

Formula One has taken its Grand Prix Race to other locations where there is a strong risk that the government would use the event to whitewash its human rights abuses, including Azerbaijan and Bahrain, while similarly claiming that it “is committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights in its operations globally.”

Bahraini security forces have over the years arbitrarily arrested many protesters and prominent opposition figures in the period before the annual race in Bahrain. Salah Abbas Habib was shot dead by security forces while protesting the Grand Prix in 2012. In June 2018, Najah Yusef, an activist, was detained, tortured, and sentenced to three years in prison for her social media activity, including posts opposing Formula One because of the government’s use of the race to whitewash repression.

On November 18, a few days ahead of an Formula One race in Qatar, where the human rights situation is also of great concern, the Formula One Champion Lewis Hamilton raised human rights concerns in both countries, saying Formula One was “duty-bound to raise awareness” about such issues in the countries hosting its events. “These places need scrutiny,” he said, adding that he wished more athletes would speak out on abuses. “One person can only make a certain amount of small difference, but together, collectively we can have a bigger impact,” he said.

Formula One’s “Human Rights Statement” says it will “focus [its] efforts in relation to those areas which are within [its] own direct influence.” Calling for the unconditional release of activists and dissidents who remain in detention for peaceful activism are both areas that fall within Formula One’s direct influence, Human Rights Watch said.

Formula One’s own policy also requires it to consider the human rights impact of its activities and conduct the necessary due diligence to prevent abuses. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that business enterprises, including international artists, celebrities, and performers, have a responsibility to “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities,” “address such impacts when they occur,” and “seek to prevent them.”

The recent creation of the Geneva-based Centre for Sports and Human Rights and the adoption by FIFA, the international football association governing body, of an internal human rights policy demonstrate a marked shift in the sporting world’s understanding that the rules of human rights apply to it too.

“Given the unprecedented coverage of Saudi Arabia’s terrible rights record over the past few years, no performer or international sporting body can claim they didn’t know,” Page said. “The real question is whether Formula One will allow its operations to be exploited by the government to launder its image.”

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