JEDDAH, Dec 3 — World champion Lewis Hamilton admitted on Thursday he is “not comfortable” racing in Saudi Arabia this weekend as the Gulf kingdom again faces accusations of “sportswashing”.
“Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do,” British driver Hamilton told a news conference in Jeddah where the penultimate race of the 2021 Formula One season takes place on Sunday.
“But this was not my choice. Our sport has chosen to be here and whether it’s fair or not, I think that while we’re here it’s still important to do some work on raising awareness.”
Hamilton has been a fierce defender of human rights issues in recent years, taking a knee on the grid in support of Black Lives Matter.
At the Qatar Grand Prix last month he wore a helmet decked in the colours of the LGBT+ community.
He will wear it again in the Jeddah street race and at the season finale in Abu Dhabi next weekend.
“A lot of change needs to take place and our sport needs to do more,” added seven-time champion Hamilton.
Meanwhile, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel on Thursday organised a karting event for a group of women drivers.
Women have only been allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia since 2018.
“Seeing the confidence of these women and giving them this opportunity in a field dominated by men, it’s great and it gave me a lot of pleasure,” said Germany’s Vettel.
“Of course there are shortcomings to be corrected but I think the positive is a more powerful weapon than the negative.”
Sunday’s Formula One race is among several big events lured in recent times to Saudi Arabia, which has also hosted heavyweight boxing and European Tour golf and faces accusations of “sportswashing” — trying to detract attention from its human rights record.
Saudi Arabia has embarked on a series of reforms under its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Formula One is part of a campaign to show a friendlier face as the world’s top oil exporter tries to attract foreign businesses and diversify its economy.
However, critics point to one of the world’s highest execution rates and a crackdown on dissidents.
“There’s been a fight against the kingdom for years, and it is fought for political reasons... some people don’t want its success,” the country’s motorsports chief Prince Khalid bin Sultan al-Faisal told AFP this week.
“There are those that say the kingdom is behind and is against human rights... of course, no one is perfect and the biggest nations that hold on to freedom and human rights have more than their share of criticisms in those fields.
“We are confident in ourselves, and this war will continue, and we will continue on our path, and the door is open for all to visit us and know who we really are,” said the prince.
However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Saudi Arabia is using the Grand Prix — which will also boast pop star Justin Bieber as a headline entertainer — to “distract from widespread human rights violations”.
“If they do not voice their concerns about the serious abuses committed by Saudi Arabia, Formula 1 and performers risk supporting the Saudi government’s costly efforts to whitewash its image despite a significant increase in repression over the years,” said Michael Page, HRW’s deputy director for the Middle East.
“If the authorities want to be seen differently, they should immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been jailed for peacefully expressing their views, lift travel bans and impose a moratorium on the death penalty,” added Amnesty International in a statement. — AFP