F1’s Gulf Triple-Bill Helps Regional Geopolitics Shift-up a Gear

12 novembre 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

As November meets December, Formula 1 heads into a Gulf region season-deciding, triple-bill of Grand Prix races in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. This will neatly bookend a season that began with an opening race in Bahrain.

Bahrain has been on the F1 scene for almost twenty years, hosting its first race in 2004, going on since then to become a major shareholder in McLaren (via its sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat). It was joined on the F1 calendar by Abu Dhabi in 2007, the first race taking place there in 2009.

At the time, a contractual agreement was in place with F1 that only two races could take place in the Gulf region, something agreed with the sport’s former proprietor Bernie Ecclestone. However, when Liberty Media acquired F1 from Ecclestone in 2017 it opened the way for other races to be staged.

Saudi Arabia’s GP was first announced in 2019, which coincided with the country announcing its plans to develop a new sport city and new F1 circuit – Qiddiya – just north of Riyadh. Covid-19 and the impact it has had on motorsport has brought forward the inaugural staging to this year, albeit on a street circuit in Jeddah.

Qatar has been on the periphery of the F1 scene for several years, most notably toying with an idea to buy F1 in 2017, though it only recently became an addition to the rosters of nations hosting races (again largely due to the pandemic affecting the ability of other cities to stage races). The Lusail circuit just outside Doha has nevertheless been staging a MotoGP motorcycling race since 2004, which is where late November’s F1 event will take place.

At the start of this year, Qatar was still a Gulf region outcast after five years of diplomatic isolation. However, with the neighbourly spat over, the imminent hosting of F1 races in quick succession demonstrates how closely the neighbouring countries are working together again and how they influence one another.

If nothing else, the Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi and the Pearl in Doha have become luxury car capitals of the world, which aligns with everything that F1 stands for. Drivers in the region are ostentatious consumers of Ferraris and Mercedes’, though there is a thriving car culture, specifically amongst males, that makes staging GPs inevitable.

Hosting GPs is not, though, simply a socio-cultural indulgence that is intended to satisfy the demands of rich kids who drive Porsches. For instance, it is one way of helping to address road safety concerns that blight the region. The advocacy of both F1 drivers and the world governing body of motorsport will be expected to play a policy role in addressing them.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia in particular will be looking towards its growing links with motorsport to promote attempts to address gender issues. The disparities between men and women in the country remain stark, indeed it was only in 2018 that Saudi Arabia became the last country in the world to make it legal for women to drive a car.

By 2019, Reema Juffali had become the country’s first female racing driver, though attempts to frame motorsport as being a force for good were recently undermined when the Jeddah race organisers issued instructions to women regarding how they should dress at the forthcoming race. A global outcry very quickly had officials backtracking with the restrictions.

This episode did little to ease concerns amongst some that F1 and motorsport are being employed in the region as a means through which to engage in sport washing. That is, to use the glitz, glamour and excitement of fast cars and big events to divert global discourse about Saudi Arabia away from matters of social injustice, human rights breaches and acts of aggression.

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see whether the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel engage in any form of public statement or protest about human rights issues that directly challenge local organisers. If they were to do so, it wouldn’t be the first time such demonstrations have taken place. Indeed, the Bahrain GP has long been subject to accusations of sport washing. In some cases, with some sponsors asking for their logos to be covered when racing there.

Whether F1’s four Gulf nation race hosts are engaged in sanitising their images and reputations through motorsport will presumably remain a moot point for some time to come. In the meantime, the respective race hosts will no doubt see an opportunity to further strengthen their positioning as global sporting event hosts. This brings with it the attendant benefits of a boost in tourist numbers and optimal capacity utilisation of their expensively constructed hotels.

There are also benefits for them in terms of nation building, nation branding and soft power. Saudi Arabia soon have the world’s largest sport city (Qiddiya), of which an F1 circuit will be a central part. Longer-term, Qatar is expected to switch staging of its race to a Doha street circuit, which will help the country show-off its shining tower blocks of its capital city.

For all four hosts, the staging of F1 races raises global awareness of them, demonstrates to the world that they want the same things everyone else does, and cements place as legitimate members of the international sporting community. Instead of seeing barren landscapes and questionable governments, perhaps some of us will instead take a more positive view of the region.

It also shouldn’t be forgotten either that there’s business to be done. Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s massive state-owned oil and gas company recently became a global F1 sponsors, whilst its Public Investment has acquired a stake of McLaren alongside Mumtalakat. Such moves help to provide longevity to fossil fuels, making them central to the effective functioning of an elite professional sport, especially in an era when the world wants to turn its back on petroleum products.

Within twenty years, there were no F1 races being staged in the Gulf region, now there are four. This reveals something about globalisation, the pivoting of power eastwards, and the desire of nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia to deploy sport for the purposes of achieving geopolitical and economic ends. Yet life in the fast lane comes with hazards, especially as some remain vehement in their criticism that these nations are ‘car-washing’ their reputations.

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