RIYADH (Dispatches) – Saudi Arabia will host a Formula One (F1) grand prix next year, a move aimed at attracting well-heeled globe-trotting visitors and raising the kingdom’s profile internationally as a tourist destination.
Thursday’s announcement, by race organizers and F1, also raised concerns from human rights activists who accuse Saudi Arabia of "sportswashing” – using sport events to create a positive image.
F1 chief executive Chase Carey said the organization was "excited to welcome Saudi Arabia” to the sport, adding that all partners and host countries are committed "to respecting human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered”.
Mercedes’s six times Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, an outspoken campaigner for equality and racial justice, said last week he needed to find out more about the Saudi situation but the sport was "a powerful platform to initiate change”.
The November night race – along Jeddah’s corniche facing the Red Sea – will be the third in the Middle East with Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, subject to confirmation of a 2021 calendar that has yet to be published.
Rights group Amnesty International’s UK head of campaigns Felix Jakens said: "We would urge all F1 drivers, owners & teams to consider speaking out about the human rights situation in the country.”
He added that owners and teams need to "express solidarity with jailed human rights defenders” in the country.
Detained Activist’s Situation ‘Alarming’
The health status of jailed Saudi women’s right activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been on hunger strike since last week, is rapidly worsening, UN experts said, calling for her "immediate” release.
Al-Hathloul, 31, was arrested along with about a dozen other female activists in May 2018, just weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on female drivers.
She began refusing food on October 26. Al-Hathloul went on a week-long hunger strike in August over the conditions of her prolonged detention.
Her deteriorating health was "deeply alarming”, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said in a statement on Thursday.
The committee, made up of 23 independent experts, also voiced serious concern "by recent information concerning the conditions of Ms al-Hathloul’s prolonged detention, including reports that she is not allowed regular contact with her family”.
Some of the activists arrested with her have been provisionally released, while others remain in detention amid what campaigners call opaque court trials over charges that include contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights groups.
The pro-government media branded al-Hathloul and other jailed activists as "traitors” and her family says she faced sexual harassment and torture in detention, including electric shocks and waterboarding.