While the Formula 1 season had started in Bahrain last March, it returns to the Gulf countries to complete the loop and close the season with three last Grands Prix, including two never before seen, in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Although these countries are criticized for their human rights violations, they seized the opportunity to welcome Formula 1 this year by disbursing colossal sums, in the continuity of their strategy to make a name for themselves. place on the map of major sporting nations.
In 2004, Bahrain had already paved the way by becoming the first Gulf country to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix. no other races in the region without its approval, given a few years later in Abu Dhabi, which hosted its first Grand Prix in 2009. But since the takeover of the world championship by Liberty Media in 2017, this agreement no longer holds . Qatar and Saudi Arabia have therefore taken the opportunity to enter the F1 calendar, replacing several Asian cities indisposed to organize a Grand Prix due to the health situation. « Qatar very generously offered to host a race », quips Simon Chadwick, professor of geopolitics and sports economics. « It is very expensive to host a Grand Prix but these are countries which have the means and are ready to pay more than the others for it », he adds, more seriously.
While the economy of the Gulf countries is essentially based on oil and gas revenues, the synergy with Formula 1 is almost natural, especially since their bourgeois class is closely interested in the automobile: « If you look at the Pearl district in Doha, it is one of the places where there is the greatest concentration of luxury cars in the world », explains Simon Chadwick. The prestigious Geneva Motor Show will even organize a twin event in Qatar from 2023. « More generally, these countries invest in football, motorsports, combat sports. These are very masculine universes, which highlight masculine power, which fits into the standards and culture of these countries », completes the professor at EM Lyon.
Beyond this cultural aspect, the Gulf countries have above all a political interest in hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Simon Chadwick calls it « sportwashing »: « It is the fact of using sport to whitewash their reputation. While we are talking about their investments in football, the stars of PSG or Formula 1, we are not talking about gas money or oil, or the fact that these are countries where it is illegal to be gay, etc. « , he argues. Amnesty International regional activist Hashem Hashem said « These sporting events serve to paint an admirable image after years of outrageous human rights violations, such as censorship, bans on free movement for women and activists, and torture without trial of opponents. ».
In an interview with BBC Sport, Stenafo Domenicalli, the boss of Formula 1, assured that the contracts binding F1 to Qatar and Saudi Arabia contained guarantees on respect for human rights. « I do not believe that cutting ties with these countries and saying that we do not want to go there will improve the situation. It would even be the opposite. », did he declare. Asked by the British magazine GQ, he rather hopes that the hosting of sporting events will bring these countries to evolve: « We are using motorsport to accelerate their desire for change, although it would be totally wrong to claim that a culture that has existed for thousands of years can change overnight. ».
While Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are used to taking positions on political issues, Amnesty International hopes that the drivers and their teams will mobilize to denounce the human rights violations committed in the countries where they will compete in their last races. of the season : « We encourage them to speak out loudly about this, showing their support for the activists and calling on the authorities to release the imprisoned human rights defenders immediately and unconditionally. ».
The Gulf countries are also counting on Formula 1 to extend their international influence: « They show the whole world that they share the same tastes as other countries, that they love cars and luxury like Americans or Europeans. And if others recognize them as such, it is easier to create links to do business afterwards « , explains Simon Chadwick. The organization of car races therefore fits perfectly into the « Vision 2030 » plan led by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Ben Salman, which aims to develop the Saudi economy to get out of its oil income.
Tourism could also be a new source of income for the kingdom: « If spectators go there to watch the Grand Prix, they will stay in hotels, visit monuments, shop in large malls. And when they return to their home country, they will share their experience and attract other tourists « , completes the specialist in economics and geopolitics.
F1 will not be the first motorsport to be exported to the Persian Gulf region. Qatar has hosted MotoGP Grands Prix since 2014 while Saudi Arabia has hosted a stage of the Formula E World Championship since 2018 and has been the scene of the Dakar since 2020. « These countries are in competition with each other, on all points. If one of them opens an art museum, the other is going to want to do the same. If he invests in a football team. , the other will do it too. It’s the same for sporting events. They copy each other because the image they convey is very important to them « , comments Simon Chadwick.
The addition to the calendar of the Grand Prix of Qatar and Saudi Arabia comes as relations between these two countries have warmed up since the start of 2021. Since 2017, Saudi Arabia and its allies (the United Arab Emirates , Bahrain and Egypt) had severed their ties with Qatar, accusing it of causing trouble in the region by supporting Islamist groups. But last January, these countries signed a « solidarity and stability » agreement. According to Simon Chadwick, « the fact that several Grands Prix are organized in this region is an illustration of the current cordial and fraternal relations of these countries ».
Even if Saudi Arabia will not organize its first F1 Grand Prix until December 5, the kingdom has been taking a keen interest in the premier class of motor racing for several years. Like the Mumtalakat (Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund), the PIF, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, has acquired a stake in the McLaren Group, owner of the eponymous F1 team. Saudi PIF-owned Aramco petrochemical group has also become one of Formula 1’s main sponsors.
Already substantial, the kingdom’s investments in motor racing could still gain momentum. Saudi Arabia will raise from the ground, by 2023, the city of Qiddiah, a city destined to become the sportiest in the world, in a project estimated at more than eight billion dollars. According to Simon Chadwick, « one can imagine that they created there a kind of pole of development of the mechanical sports, on the model of Silverstone and its surroundings in Great Britain, where the automobile industry employs nearly 40,000 people with the seat of several stables of F1 « .
A final element could come to consolidate even more the place of the Gulf countries in the calendar of the world automobile championships: the former Emirati rally driver, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, could become the next president of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) . He is one of the two candidates to succeed Jean Todt for the election to be held on December 17.