Gulf countries controversially line-up on F1’s grid in race towards a post-oil future

27 novembre 2020
By Prof. Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

The first in a series of F1 Grand Prix races takes place in the Gulf region this week, starting with a double-header of races being staged in Bahrain. Afterwards, the championship heads to Abu Dhabi for the season finale, which will conclude what has surely been the sport’s strangest season ever.

Normally, there would only be two races in the Gulf region, but these are difficult times. Following the season decimating outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, F1’s management have sought to complete the season whilst mitigating the virus’ economic damage by staging races multiple times in single locations, including Bahrain.

An increased number of F1 races being staged in the region is not without significance. When the Bahrain race first ran in 2004, it was agreed contractually that only one other country in the region would be permitted to stage a Grand Prix. This happened in 2009, when Abu Dhabi joined the schedule.

This was a somewhat contentious decision, especially as an aspirant Qatar (which had been and continues to stage a MotoGP motorcycling race) wanted to secure a slot in F1’s annual schedule. The country nevertheless remained excluded, leading to reports in 2015 that government in Doha would seek to purchase F1 when its owner at the time – Bernie Ecclestone – decided to sell the series.

Qatar’s move didn’t succeed and F1 was eventually sold in 2017 to the United States corporation Liberty Media. Yet a little under three years later, it was announced that a third race would in fact be staged in the Gulf region. In late 2019, it was revealed that from 2023 onwards Saudi Arabia would be joining its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members as an F1 host.

It remains unclear what happened to the initial host contract arrangements, though the decision to run races in Saudi, Bahrain and Dubai is not without regional controversy. After all, all three nations are currently engaged in a diplomatic feud with neighbouring Qatar for which the opportunity to host an F1 race must now be a very distant prospect.

It perhaps reveals something about Saudi Arabia’s continuing power in the region that it was able to negotiate rights for a race, something that is both political and economic in nature. The country is currently engaged in a decades long plan to diversify its economy, somewhat ironically given changing attitudes towards carbon fuels. Government is Riyadh is intent on embracing event staging, especially in motorsports, as one means through which to do this.

The country already hosts a Formula E race and, in early 2020, staged the Paris-Dakar raid (the first year of what is thought to be a five-year contract with France’s Amaury Sport Organisation). In addition, as part of a major infrastructural project, Saudi Arabia is constructing a dedicated racing circuit at Qiddiya, which is being constructed close to Riyadh at a cost in excess of $500 billion.

It was presumably a surprise to Qatar, if not to the world of F1 in general, when it was recently announced that Saudi Arabian hosting of an F1 race is being brought forward to 2021. Until Qiddiya is ready, a Grand Prix will be staged using a street circuit in Jeddah.

At a time when Gulf region politics are divisive and sensitive, this was a bold move by Liberty. However, it does point to financial ambitions rather than political sensitivities having been the guiding principle in its decision to fast track Saud Arabia into position as one of its partners. Whatever the motives, the inconvenient truth for all concerned is that hosting an F1 race in the Gulf comes with political baggage.

For the entire duration of its history, the Bahrain date on F1’s annual calendar has been mired in controversy. Concerns about political suppression and human rights abuses have long dogged the race. In 2011, the race was actually cancelled due to civil unrest in the small Gulf nation; in 2012, human rights groups engaged in protests, some of them violent, against the race taking place. In response, several sponsors associated with teams participating in the race requested that their logos be removed from cars competing in it.

The Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi has never been embroiled in controversy in quite the same way as Bahrain’s has. Indeed, the race is often a benign and anonymous one, the world championship title normally having been settled before F1’s circus arrives in town for a late afternoon, season-closing race under floodlights.

Even so, Abu Dhabi as a country is not without considerable controversy of its own. In a 2018 report, Amnesty International condemned the emirate for its unfair trials, lack of freedom of expression, a failure to investigate allegations of torture, discrimination against women and the abuse of migrant workers. As such, critics argue that Abu Dhabi’s investments in sport (which also includes the likes of English Premier League club Manchester City) are a diversionary tactic to deflect attention away from its crimes and misdemeanours.

This is increasingly being labelled by some as ‘sport washing’ and by others as ‘reputation laundering’. Abu Dhabi would argue otherwise, for it too faces the looming reality of a world in which oil prices are deflating and attitudes towards carbon fuel powered vehicles are deteriorating. As in Saudi Arabia, it seems somewhat perverse that petrol-based events are being used to address the realities of a post-petrol future.

Yet this is not the only thing that unites Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, the latter comes with baggage as well. Whether it is the war being waged in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in its embassy in Istanbul, or the persecution of women’s rights protestors, Saudi Arabia’s growing portfolio of investments in sport are shining a light on the country’s activities. As such, it seems highly likely that Jeddah’s, and then Qiddiya’s, running of a Grand Prix will be tarnished with the label of sport washing.

The combined populations of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi is less than three million people; Saudi Arabia is a very different proposition. Its population is more than ten times the size, whilst it is widely acknowledged as a regional powerhouse. If staging F1 races in the two smaller nations has got the critics revved-up, then one wonders whether this season’s closing races will merely serve as the prelude to more intense political problems and protests next season, when Saudi’s race takes its place on the schedule and accusations of sport washing gather pace.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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