At the start of the weekend of Saudi Arabia’s first-ever top-flight race, NGOs denounce the kingdom’s human rights deficiencies. As organizations demand action from participants, reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton stepped forward, saying he was “not comfortable” with the race being held in Jeddah and questioning “appalling” Saudi anti-gay laws.

The Saudi leadership could not have dreamed of a better scenario. As Formula 1 drivers arrive in Jeddah for the first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and the penultimate match of the season, the battle for the world champion title continues. A closed dispute between Max Verstappen (Red Bull) and Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), an unprecedented situation since 2016.

This is the perfect distraction for Saudi Arabia, as several NGOs accuse the emirate of using the event and surrounding celebrations to “distract from widespread human rights violations,” in the words of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Soccer, cycling, Dakar, Formula E and now Formula 1. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has used sport to improve its image and diversify its oil economy, as it is already doing with culture and tourism. An attitude described as ‘sportwashing’ by various associations for the defense of human rights, starting with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which summon the pilots and artists invited this weekend to perform.

“Any company that participates in an event of great importance in Saudi Arabia must detect, mitigate or prevent human rights violations that it may cause or to which it may contribute or be directly related as a result of its activities, products or services, including in regarding Formula 1 and its Grand Prix, “urges Amnesty International in a press release.

“The Saudi authorities must understand that respect for human rights is the best possible public relations operation. If they want to change the image they project, then they must immediately and unconditionally release all those imprisoned for having peacefully expressed their opinions, lift all travel bans and establish a moratorium on the death penalty, “adds the NGO.

“If they do not voice their concerns about the serious abuses committed by Saudi Arabia, Formula 1 and the participants run the risk of supporting the costly efforts of the Saudi government to whitewash its image, despite the significant increase in repression in recent years.” Michael Page, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East, said in a statement.

Lewis Hamilton denounces “gruesome” laws against homosexuals

In a rush to speak at a press conference on Thursday, December 3, British driver Lewis Hamilton, who made the fight against discrimination his own, said that he does not feel “comfortable” about racing in Saudi Arabia, “but it was not my choice. “.

“Our sport has chosen to be here and whether it is fair or not, I think that while we are here it is important to do a little outreach work,” he continued. “It is important for us to raise awareness. And I try to do it on my own terms. And the laws that convict homosexuals (with prison terms and flogging) are quite appalling,” he remarked.

For the seven-time world champion, it will be a matter of wearing the helmet again in the colors of the LGBT + community that he already showed in Qatar a fortnight ago and that he will show again in Abu Dhabi next week.

Another driver set out to make a gesture: former world champion Sebastian Vettel. She organized a karting event with some women, in a country where they have only been allowed to drive since 2018. She will also wear a tribute helmet with the legend “race for women” during the competition.

“Seeing the confidence of these women and giving them this opportunity in a sector dominated by men, it’s great and I was very pleased,” she explained. “Of course there are deficiencies to correct, but I believe that the positive is a more powerful weapon than the negative,” he added.

For the German it is not his first attempt at politics in the paddock either. Before the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix in August, he appeared dressed in a rainbow-colored T-shirt and mask to denounce the new legal provisions prohibiting the “promotion” of homosexuality among minors, which recently came into force in the country. . In this outfit, he wrote a message in black: “Same love.” For this action, he was penalized by the sports commissioners.

Justin Bieber, under fire from critics

Justin Bieber, who is scheduled to have a concert on the sidelines of the Saudi GP on Sunday, has been widely criticized by human rights associations for his participation. Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered in 2018 at his country’s consulate in Istanbul, has led the movement that asks the Canadian singer to cancel his visit.

“This is a unique opportunity to send a strong message to the world that his name and his talents will not be used to restore the image of a regime that kills its opponents,” he wrote in a column published in The Washington Post at the end of the day. of November.

On social media, the hashtag #WTFJustin was widely shared and a plane with the caption “Why does Bieber sing for the Saudi killers?” flew over the skies over Los Angeles last month at the American Music Awards.

Saudi Arabia defends itself

Anticipating the criticism that the Jeddah Grand Prix would arouse, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, rehearsed a defense of his country in an interview.

“What (polishes) the image of the kingdom is not a singer, but its leaders and its people. You cannot polish or show an image different from reality,” he justified.

“There has been a fight against the kingdom for years, a fight for political reasons,” added the head of motorsports in Saudi Arabia. “There are those who say that the kingdom is backward and against human rights. Of course, nobody is perfect and the major nations that exercise freedom and human rights have more criticism than they are entitled to in these areas,” he counterattacked.

“We believe in ourselves, this war will continue, we will continue on our way and the door is open for everyone to visit us and see who we really are,” the prince closed.

More anecdotal, but still revealing, is that there are ultimately no dress restrictions on the Jeddah circuit, where the GP takes place, or any public venue in the city.

Initially, the Spanish newspaper Marca had mentioned that strict rules would be implemented, especially for women, which caused the discontent of some teams and the general public. But a note sent to the media by the organizers only urges “to respect the cultural sensitivity of Saudi Arabia.”

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