For Formula One fans around the world, the news that world champion Lewis Hamilton has recovered from coronavirus and will be fit to race in Abu Dhabi this weekend will be met with jubilation. F1’s management, on the other hand, might be feeling ambivalent.
Over the course of a season marred by Covid-19, Hamilton’s increasingly firm stance on social justice, sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, has frequently overshadowed the racing. And last month, before the Bahrain Grand Prix, he made the incendiary claim that F1 has a “consistent and massive problem” with human rights abuses in the places it visits. Chase Carey, the head of F1, hit back, saying “we are very proud of our partnership here in Bahrain”, but this has done little to quell the uproar.
Hamilton, who has won more races than any other driver and is now a record-equalling seven-times champion, is far from alone in questioning F1’s relationship with these regimes. Last month a cross-party coalition of British MPs wrote to F1’s management, expressing concern that they were being exploited by Bahrain to sportswash its dismal rights record. When asked on CNN whether 30 British MPs had got it wrong, Carey was adamant, stressing that F1 was in fact working with partners to “improve and advance the human rights issues”. The Bahrain government denied that hosting the race was “sportswashing” and rejected claims of human rights abuses. Yet, with the final race of the season taking place in the United Arab Emirates tomorrow, and a first-ever race scheduled for Saudi Arabia next year, F1’s position appears more and more indefensible.
While many associate the UAE with high-rise hotels and luxurious shopping malls, behind the shimmering towers lies an authoritarian state with a dire human rights record. Just 20km from the Yas Marina grand prix circuit, human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor sits in prison, serving a 10-year sentence for criticising his government on social media.
Yet F1 appears happy to take abusive regimes at their word. When challenged by CNN on the state of human rights in its Gulf partner states, Carey pointed to “clear publicity about increased rights for females in Saudi Arabia”. To choose the last state on Earth to allow women to drive for a motorsport event always seemed distasteful – and in appearing to side with the regime, has F1 betrayed those who genuinely fought for women’s rights in the kingdom? Indeed, just days before that, Saudi Arabia transferred the trial of Loujain al-Hathloul, who led the campaign for women’s right to drive, to a court reserved for terrorism suspects.
F1’s apparent acceptance of the Saudi line is familiar to many Bahrainis. We have long experienced brutal government suppression of protests against the Bahrain Grand Prix. On the eve of the 2012 race, police killed father of five Salah Abbas Habib. To this date, there has been no accountability for his death.
Few have a more intimate knowledge of the lengths Bahrain will appear to go to protect their lucrative relationship with F1 than Najah Yusuf, a Bahraini activist who was tortured, sexually assaulted and jailed for three years for criticising the grand prix on social media. When the UN declared Yusuf’s imprisonment “arbitrary” last year and called for her to receive compensation, F1 pledged to raise her case with Bahrain. However, Yusuf says that F1 has made no attempt to has not contacted her and she continues to face harassment from the regime to this day. Her teenage son, Kameel, now faces over 20 years in prison for attending protests, in what Amnesty International deems “a reprisal against his mother”.
My organisation, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, has campaigned for many years for F1 to take responsibility for where it chooses to race, with little success. However, Hamilton’s comments have offered the region’s beleaguered activists a glimmer of hope. In November, Yusuf joined two other torture victims in writing directly to Hamilton in the hope that he might draw attention to their plight.
As the world’s greatest F1 driver, when Lewis Hamilton speaks, Formula 1 has no choice but to pay attention. While Hamilton admitted last month that he needed to learn more about countries like Saudi Arabia, he has a unique opportunity to ensure his sport is no longer used as a vehicle to sportswash human rights abuses. For Loujain al-Hathloul, Ahmed Mansoor, Najah Yusuf and thousands of other victims of oppression in the Arab Gulf, his voice will be more important than ever.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei is the advocacy director of the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.