RIYADH (Dispatches) – Saudi Arabia’s
sovereign wealth fund considered buying Formula 1 motor racing last year, and remains interested in purchasing the franchise as part of its ongoing sportswashing campaign.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) valued the racing group at $20bn. But Liberty Media Corp, which owns F1 along with SiriusXM and the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team, was not interested in selling, Bloomberg reported, citing unnamed sources.
The PIF’s offer valued F1 substantially above the $4.4bn Liberty Media Corp paid for the franchise in 2017, underscoring how the international racing platform has gained popularity. Liberty Media’s stock tracking F1 has doubled in value over the last four years, with a market capitalization of about $15bn.
Saudi Arabia hosted its debut Formula 1 race in December 2021, and a second grand prix in March 2022 in the port city of Jeddah. At the time, some drivers raised concerns about participating in the event inside the kingdom over its human rights record.
In December 2021, seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton indicated he was not comfortable racing in the country.
“Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say that I do,” Hamilton said at the time. “But it’s not my choice to be here. The sport has taken the choice to be here.”
Flush with petrodollars on the back of rising energy prices, Saudi Arabia has binged on sports investments.
In 2021, the PIF acquired the English Premier League football club, Newcastle United FC. The kingdom has backed its own golf league to rival the PGA. In January, soccer legend Cristiano Ronaldo became the highest-paid player in the footballing world when he was unveiled with his new club Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia.
The dive into sports has been criticized by many activists as a form of “sportswashing” to distract from the kingdom’s human rights record.
The move is part of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s efforts to diversify the country’s economy away from reliance on petrodollars.
Ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in 2017, the kingdom has ramped up arrests of activists, bloggers, intellectuals, and others perceived as political opponents, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnations of the crackdown.
Muslim scholars have been executed and women’s rights campaigners have been put behind bars and tortured as freedoms of expression, association, and belief continue to be denied.
In 2019 alone, Saudi Arabia set a record number of executions after Saudi authorities executed 184 people, despite a general decrease in the number of executions around the world. In April 2020, Reprieve, a UK-based non-profit organization, said Saudi Arabia had carried out its 800th execution.