Racing in Saudi Arabia is political – and controversial – but it should be about the effect it has on the lives of Saudi citizens, not just the way it’s perceived in the west.
There’s the things everyone knows about Saudi Arabia: the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the guardianship scheme that prevents women from making career, financial or travel choices without permission from a male relative or spouse, the total intolerance of LGBTQ+ people, the documented use of torture as a method of interrogation, arrests of human rights activists and the brutally catastrophic war in Yemen. There’s the oil-based profiteering that’s unquestionably helped destroy the earth’s climate, the abuse of migrant workers, mostly from the Philippines, and connections with global terrorism.
I’m listing these so you don’t think I don’t know about them or want to shy away from them, even though I don’t think they should stand in the way of racing there. Which might seem like a weird view but it’s based on having been there and seen how Formula E is able to run.
I’m not paid to say this. I don’t get flown out and escorted around by Formula E for the race (some others do) and they’ve never told me what to say or write about it – possibly because, after six seasons, they know that wouldn’t work.
The first time I went to Riyadh was for a showcase, which they did take me to, but the subsequent two times I made it there on my beloved nemesis Ryanair. Formula E don’t know where I stay or what I get up to when I’m there, I’ve never been on the books of CSM (a global sports PR agency who have brought journalists to Formula E races) and don’t even get invited to their dinners at races. The only thing I get from the series is an annual piece of plastic on a string, unreliable media centre Wi-Fi and quotes, which is exactly how it should work.
Riyadh is not a very beautiful city, although ancient Diriyah (where we race) is spectacular. It’s also weirdly criss-crossed by enormous motorways which decentralise the whole structure, so that everywhere feels like a dusty suburb. Or maybe that’s just that there’s really not much at all to do, beyond book and kebab shops and – cheeky fact – five Nandos.
Of the 39 million people in Saudi Arabia, nine million live in Riyadh, and it’s boring. The cars are all dusty old Toyota Camrys, not blacked-out SUVs. Buildings are a little neglected. The big migrant worker population is noticeably poorer and when I stayed in a heavily Filipino district, in December 2019, it was definitely in a shabbier state than some of the rest of the city and particularly the luxury compounds on the outskirts.
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There’s evidently a problem with the infrastructure for collecting rubbish, which accumulates in the streets, to the delight of scrawny moggies no one really owns – a staple of the Middle East and Caucasus that I found reassuringly familiar – but who get indulged by a lot of people.
I find it stressful, which is embarrassing to admit, because I’m fearless about travelling and at the end of the day Riyadh is just an ordinary place that people live in. When it was announced, I had the same concerns as anyone – actually, quite a lot of very specific and personal concerns about how I was going to do my job for the next 10 years, as a woman who works in Formula E – and I took series CEO Alejandro Agag to task about it in a press conference at the first opportunity.
He said something I disagreed with then – and still do – which was that sport isn’t political. It is. And the ‘optics’ of racing in Saudi Arabia are of a political endorsement of the regime there, which is what people object to.
As outsiders, we see a race in Saudi as being about Formula 1 or Formula E. And, by extension, we who work in and watch them being taken there on the allure of oil money (it’d be silly, not to mention naive, to suggest Aramco’s funding isn’t a factor).
International sport suddenly arriving in Saudi is due to Vision 2030, the Saudi state’s plan for improving the lives of its citizens, which is largely regarded as PR talk for a regime that’s actually uninterested in change. There is more to it than that, on an internal level – Saudi citizens have relatively poor quality of life and life expectancy (70% of the population is aged between 15-30, 90% work in agriculture and the majority are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change) and sport, activities and entertainment, after decades in, essentially, lockdown, is part of the plan to improve that.
I’ve been deprived of race action for nine months – like most of us this year – and I’d get myself on the next budget flight to one within seconds if the opportunity came up, desperately yearning to go back, even though I’ve been lucky enough to have been to loads, over my lifetime. It would suck if I’d never had the opportunity at all.
Motorsport, as a world, is extremely conservative by the rest of most society’s standards. But throw it into an even more conservative world and suddenly it can become pretty radical.
When Saudi Arabia got its Eprix in 2018, the condition was that it had to run like any other round of the championship. Women, who had been banned not just from motorsport but from driving until that summer, had to be welcomed and there had to be mixed-gender grandstands, as well as the option for a women-only one. There would also be women on track, as part of a special test where teams could run a second car if they chose a female driver to do it.
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That test means Saudi Arabia is, by quite some distance, the country where the most women have simultaneously driven current, top-flight, single seater race cars. Which is the sort of stat that you’d say ‘well, why does that matter?’ But when I brought it up to the now-head of the Saudi sports authority, the first time I went to Riyadh, as a stunt, we ended up agreeing that any other country could’ve done it if they’d wanted to in the 120 or so years of motorsport’s prior history. The stipulation of inclusion, as a condition of the race, created an environment where women were encouraged and the comparison with the way that doesn’t happen elsewhere is stark.
Does it mean that women’s rights are fixed in Saudi? No, absolutely not and I don’t think you could expect an electric motorsport race to do that. The politics of it simply aren’t that large scale but you can create, as an event, a better environment. It is political, to do these things anywhere and ‘#WeRaceAsOne’ had better ensure that F1 is doing the same.
When the first race arrived my status as a novelty in motorsport turned into a surreal experience where teenage girls kept coming up to me, grabbing my lanyard and excitedly talking to me while I felt like a total fraud. They’d never got to go to a race before, because there hadn’t been any and, until the FIA and Formula E leant on the Eprix organisers, women weren’t allowed. They were fascinated by the idea that, living in London, I’d do anything so obviously worse as to come to their country where this was the biggest thing that’d happened. A sharp perspective on my own privilege.
The second year was a ticketing disaster: Race and concert attendance were parcelled together meaning the organisers believed they’d close to sold-out but next to no one arrived during the daytime, especially on the Friday (Friday is a day for family and mosque, as the first day of the Islamic weekend) and then thousands arriving for the evening’s entertainment. I somehow ended up in a mosh pit with the track marshals to a Lebanese rapper covering Bryan Adams’ ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’, if you were wondering what concerts in Saudi Arabia are like.
When the first western concerts happened in the Soviet Union, there was outrage. But it was something fans in the USSR loved and ushered in an era of greater openness and, ultimately, change. Whether that will happen with the introduction of international sports to Saudi Arabia, I don’t know, because I don’t have a crystal ball. But if you want to make sure that the 2030 Vision is sincere and does take steps to improve the lives of Saudi Arabians then having international scrutiny is by no means a bad thing.
“We’re not a political organisation. Sport should never be seen to be political.” So said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner when asked about F1’s plans to race in Saudi Arabia. His team, during Britain’s general election last year, used its factory to host a campaign visit for eventual winner Boris Johnson.
Formula 1 being used for political ends is not new. There will, no doubt, be some of that around the Jeddah race. I trust you’re smart enough to tell when it’s happening, the same way I assume no one imagines Putin turning up at the Sochi podium has magically resolved the frozen ethnic conflict 25 kilometres away.
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