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Saudi Arabia to host maiden F1 Grand Prix, but human rights abuses overshadow country’s global sporting ambitions

From hosting Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title fight in 2019 to presenting the 2020 edition of the Spanish Super Cup football tournament, Saudi Arabia is making its mark on the global sports landscape.

In its latest venture, the country will stage the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Red Sea port city of Jeddah in December — set to be the fastest street track in F1 history, according to the event’s website. “We managed to design a street circuit which is fast and challenging,” Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies. Taking place under floodlights, drivers will encounter a circuit over six kilometers in length, which runs through the city’s scenic waterfront, featuring 27 corners and an average speed of about 252 km/h. At 50 laps, the race distance will measure about 309 km (192 miles), the website says.

Al Faisal hopes that the Grand Prix will appeal to Saudi Arabia’s young population, of which 67% are under the age of 35, according to a 2020 report by the General Authority of Statistics, a government agency. “Formula One has a very big fan base in Saudi Arabia,” he said. The maiden Saudi Arabian GP is one of a handful of F1 races located in the Persian Gulf, alongside Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. “[We] don’t fear that we will be competing with other countries in the region,” Al Faisal said. “We see it as we all complete each other.”

But as Saudi Arabia emerges as a powerful stakeholder in global sport, the country’s human rights record is being criticized. In 2020, after the Saudi Arabian-backed consortium Public Investment Fund made a bid, with two other parties, to purchase English Premier League football club Newcastle United, activists accused the kingdom of “sportswashing” — a phenomenon whereby corrupt or autocratic regimes invest in sports events to whitewash their international reputation. The consortium, including the Saudi PIF, ended up withdrawing its bid in July 2020, citing the prolonged process and global uncertainty.

Earlier this year, human rights group Grant Liberty estimated that Saudi Arabia has spent about $1.5 billion on “sportswashing” since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched his Vision 2030 master plan, which aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil exports. The country has spent millions on hosting a plethora of prestigious sports events, including golf, horse racing, snooker and chess tournaments, according to Grant Liberty’s 2021 report. While F1 drivers haven’t yet spoken out against Saudi Arabia’s 10-year deal, reportedly worth $650 million, they have previously questioned where races are being staged — notably Bahrain.