Formula 1 sets up in Saudi Arabia

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Formula 1 offered itself a new playground and probable controversy on Thursday by adding to the program for the 2021 season the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in history, in an ultra-conservative kingdom criticized for its human rights violations.

After a few prestigious football matches in the Spanish and Italian Supercopa, the media boxing fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr, then especially the Dakar rally-raid at the beginning of the year, is the F1 which arrives in the oil monarchy.

Saudi Arabia will thus become the 33rd country in history to host an F1 race. It will take place at night, in the streets of Jeddah’s coastal city, in western Saudi Arabia, on the Red Sea’s shores.

“This race is part of the + Vision 2030+ project and has the support of our leadership and more especially of the crown prince”, Mohammed bin Salman, an architect of this plan to modernize and diversify the Saudi economy, declared the prince on Thursday. Abdel Aziz, Minister of Sports.

The race should add to the heavy schedule envisaged for the next season: 22 races were on the program in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic reduced it to 17 meetings. The full 2021 calendar will be unveiled later, said Formula One, the company that manages the world championship.

Saudi Arabia and motorsport is a recent story, the thread of which has nevertheless been woven with ardor in recent months.

In January 2020, the kingdom had already hosted the Dakar for the first time, angering human rights organizations. A new edition is scheduled for January 3, 2021. Formula E has also been organizing one of the world championship rounds in Arabia since the end of 2018, the E-Prix of Diriyah.

F1 had also announced in early 2020 the establishment of a long-term partnership with Saudi Aramco, a Saudi oil giant. And the Saudi authorities launched in January the construction of a vast motor racing circuit in Qiddiya.

For the country, the goal is clear: Saudi Arabia has multiplied major sporting events in recent years, with the desire to develop the entertainment sector and improve its image.

Since the coming to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the repression of dissenting voices has increased in the country, where several activists are detained, including famous feminist figures like Loujain al-Hathloul.

The country was plunged into one of the worst diplomatic crises in its history after the assassination in 2018 of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, where international organizations pointed out Prince Mohammed’s involvement. The kingdom has always denied it.

For the moment, reactions to this arrival in Saudi Arabia remain limited. Many drivers and team managers have refused to comment on the pretext of their ignorance of the subject.

Briton Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) referred to sport in general as “a powerful platform to initiate change.”

This position is shared by his Austrian boss Toto Wolff and the latter’s counterpart at Ferrari Mattia Binotto, who spoke of the “power of unity” and “change” that sport can have.

Horner said to him: “confidence in the governing bodies of F1 (its promoter Liberty Media, and the International Automobile Federation) to make the right decisions. Whatever their decision, we will be present”, he adds.

Human rights organizations regularly criticize the organization of these international sporting events in Saudi Arabia, which they say are intended to “clear” the country of its serious human rights violations.

Sport has also become a competition between rival Gulf countries, where Qatar is due to host the first FIFA World Cup in the Middle East in 2022. Riyadh and Doha are competing for the organization of the 2030 Asian Games.

Source: AFP

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