Saudi Arabian GP Security Issues Carry Larger Implications Far Beyond Formula One

During Formula One’s Singapore Grand Prix a few weeks ago, security issues stemming from attacks before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix were addressed by the Saudi Arabian Sports Minister, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal.

For a refresher, in March, Houthi rebels hit an Aramco oil facility that was just 10 kilometers away from the track in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This attack was carried out by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who used organized drone strikes during a globally televised event to let the world know what they were capable of. This significantly escalated concern about security throughout the track, and the drivers weren’t shy about expressing their thoughts.

I’ve previously mentioned my concern for the expansion of Formula One, as have many others. When you consider the wars and entanglements between the companies within F1 and the countries they’re racing in or waring with, security mitigation and intelligence has to take priority. What’s more, race organizers and host countries have to have several layers of backup plans and measures in the event of escalation. Thankfully, to my understanding, they do.

While these security measures should be under lock and key within FOM and the FIA, briefing fans on pertinent information and how it relates to their safety should be more of a priority. And when you consider the arms trade and aid packages being invested in these countries by governments with direct ties to Formula One, it should be raising more global concerns, especially as F1 looks to expand.

If you’re interested in learning more about these entanglements and contradictory positioning, I write about it in depth here.

Formula One drivers came close to boycotting March’s race in wake of the attack at the oil facility. The director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, Alexander Wurz, said in April that drivers will continue to band together on political issues following their all-hands briefing in March. This meeting was a four-hour discussion in which Wurz summarized the growth and maturity of the drivers as, “In the last two or three years, those young people have suddenly come to the position that they should have an opinion and that they should also talk and express their opinions and deal with their responsibility for it.” In the past, F1 was averse to drivers sharing their opinions and were encouraged to “stick to sports.” As we know, during the pandemic, that changed and drivers found their voices.

It’s clear that FOM, the FIA, and Saudi Arabia are also paying attention to this movement, which makes me wonder just how close drivers actually were to boycotting the race in March.

Remember that during practice, black smoke was visible from the track, which was what prompted most of the concerns by the drivers and personnel. Obviously, the race continued as Saudi authorities guaranteed that safety concerns were being handled, and those promises were delivered.

During the Singapore Grand Prix, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal told reporters “We met personally with all the team principals and I met personally with all the drivers.” He continued by saying they talked about the security concerns but also mentioned that “There isn’t really a secure place that you can go to [with a guarantee nothing happens] from mass shootings to wars and other things that are happening.”

Prince Al-Faisal wasn’t wrong in this honest explanation and cited the “Just Stop Oil” protestors who managed to get on track at Silverstone. Also, it’s pretty obvious that the mass shootings reference was towards the United States, which is home to three races on the 2023 calendar.

Following the attacks at the Aramco facility, a truce was brokered through the United Nations between a Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen and the Houthis. Unfortunately, on October 3, 2022, that truce expired raising concerns throughout world. This war is more significant than people think, and carries critical global political implications, which Formula One isn’t exempt from.

The following is a “lightly detailed” summary of the Arab Spring. I’m writing this because as “F1 Tourism” continues to increase, it’s important to link conflicts to host countries and sponsors to inform fans on the various international relations throughout the world, and as they relate to the sport.

This conflict began during the Arab Spring in 2011 when citizens of Middle Eastern and North African countries were protesting over wanting governments that were more democratic in nature. This was started when a fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, lit himself on fire after the Tunisian was told by police that he could no longer operate his cart. This prompted protests which turned extremely violent and lasted for months before Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. By March, after Tunisians rejected the interim government, the incumbent ruling party was dissolved, and in October 2011 Tunisians had their first election since the start of the revolution.

During this time, Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi condemned the Tunisian revolution. This condemnation backfired and the Libyan people waged their own protest. After hundreds of deaths and protests spreading throughout the Middle East, Gaddafi threatened a no-fly zone on Libyan airspace, which the United Nations backed. Acting under U.N. Security Council authority, the United States launched Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19, with the objective to protect civilians from attacks by Gaddafi. This operation was in coalition with France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Canada.

Following months of conflict–which included pro-Gaddafi forces advancing on cities throughout Libya, shelling and detaining civilians, and destroying the British embassy–the Libyan government accusing NATO of attempting to assassinate Gadaffi.

In October 2011, Gadaffi’s son, Mutassim, ordered a heavily armed convoy of allies to abandon Sirte when a series of NATO-led drone strikes and bombs neutralized the convoy. Although the information on this is limited, Misrata militia intercepted some of Gadaffi’s allies who survived the strike and tortured and murdered them. Militiamen also found and killed Muammar Gadaffi on October 20, 2011. Due to the gruesome and graphic way in which Gadaffi was killed, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch have noted that it was a violation of international law.

Throughout this time, there were also anti-government protests in bordering Egypt and Bahrain (which is an island in the Persian Gulf just off the coast of Saudi Arabia), in which protestors were calling for complete reform. The main thread in these uprisings were socioeconomic liberation. The protests in Bahrain were started by the “Day of Rage,” where thousands protested until local police initiated “Bloody Thursday,” which was an early hours violent raid intended to clear protestors. Three people died and hundreds were injured. During the raid, protestors were calling for Bahraini King Hamad Isa al-Khalifa’s resignation and chanted “Down with the king, down with the government.” The government placed the blame on the protestors, while the United Nations condemned the government’s use of violence to disperse those protests.

This is where the United Kingdom gets involved. Before “Bloody Tuesday,” the U.K. supplied arms to Bahrain, which were used in the riots against the people. In its wake, the U.K. said it would “urgently revoke licenses if we judge that they are no longer in line with the [U.K. and European Union] criteria.” However, in a report by the Independent, the U.K. sold £45m ($50m USD 2022) in arms to Bahrain during the Arab Spring. Additionally, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the U.K. government is “playing a central role in the war in Yemen,” and has admitted that “the Saudi-led coalition has attacked the country using weapons made by companies around the U.K., representing billions of pounds of arms sales.” According to the report, the arms sales includes aircraft and bombs, and even goes as far to say that it’s “inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied by the U.K.”

This is the part of this wide web of entanglements where Formula One gets directly involved.

In March when the Iran-backed Houthis bombed the Aramco facility, there were six U.K.-based teams present at the race: Mercedes, Red Bull, Haas, Alpine, Aston Martin, and Williams. Aside from the U.K. providing arms, the most important factor here is that Aramco is a main Formula One sponsor and a title sponsor for Aston Martin. It’s unknown whether or not the Houthi’s also chose this event as a way to rattle the United Kingdom knowing it’s the epicenter of the world’s fastest growing sport. What we do know is that there have been thousands of attacks in the region in the past in response to Saudi Arabia’s military strike record on Yemen. We also know that the United Kingdom provides aid to Yemen and that it’s been accused of shorting the aid packages compared to the arms deals with Saudi Arabia, which is viewed as the aggressor.

Now that we’ve broken down the history and parties that led to March’s attacks, let’s unpack why this truce deal is important Formula One and its backers.

Right now, the conflicts are still largely based on economics. Unfortunately, Yemen’s involvement is viewed as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi’s are blaming aid and economic stalling on Saudi Arabian travel restrictions, and have threatened additional attacks and disruptions on oil facilities, as well as airports and seaports.

Despite condemnation of these threats by global leaders, the Houthi’s maintain that their aggression and threats are their way to continually fight corruption. This position is at the expense of innocent civilians who rely on the economic stimulation of imports and exports. It’s also why both the Houthis and the Saudi’s have been unable to reach a longterm extension on its previous two-month ceasefire truce, which I imagine could have direct implications on whether drivers will actually boycott the 2023 race or not.

The Houthis have state allies that far outweigh opponents, and one of those allies is Russia. As we know, Formula One terminated its agreement with the organizers of the Russian Grand Prix over Russia’s war with Ukraine, and Russia also had significant involvement with the destruction in the Syrian component of the Arab Spring. Formula One has already made its stance crystal clear on competing in countries which are aggressors of war, and because of this, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia has international relations theorists questioning whether F1 will reconsider its relationship with Azerbaijan race organizers.

For some side bar information, presently, the United States has accused Saudi Arabia of helping Russia with its war funding against Ukraine. OPEC has just decided to cut around two million barrels of oil production per day which means that the global oil supply will increasingly rely on Russian oil output and increase its revenue, which will reduce the effects of sanctions against Russia. Saudi Arabia has denied colluding with Russia and claim it was purely economics, even though it could cause oil prices to rise around the world.

The United States’ involvement in this war is quite extensive. According to this report, “military sales approved under the [President] Biden administration has totaled more than $1 billion, notwithstanding Biden’s pledge to end U.S. support for the war and hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights abuses.” I won’t expand on the particulars here, but if you’re curious, I recommend reading the report in its entirety.

President Biden told CNN “I am in the process, when the House and Senate comes back, there is going to be some consequences for what they’ve [Saudi Arabia] done with Russia.” Obviously, this strains relations further between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Ironically, this weekend, Austin, Texas is hosting the Aramco United States Grand Prix. The average Grand Prix television audience globally in 2021 was 70.3 million viewers, so in short, this weekend will be a marketing win for Formula One’s main title sponsor and the world’s largest oil producer.

This report notes that Iran has been backing the Houthis since the Arab Spring uprising, which is important for several reasons–of which, some are directly tied to F1. For starters, Iran was essentially a tale of two halves, which created social and political tectonic movement. The Saudis recognized the Yemeni government of Aden, while Iran backed the government in Sanaa, which was linked to the Houthis. To make a long story short, in 2015 following a civil war in Yemen, Iran recognized the Supreme Political Council in Sanaa as the leader, and provided the Houthis with military and weapons support. It’s argued that this allegiance began in the 1990s when Iran welcomed religious Houthi students, including one student in particular, who led an indoctrination program intended to feed the Houthi insurgency in Yemen against the Ali Abdullah Saleh-led government.

This Houthi-led movement was facilitated in part to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s decision to raise fuel prices by 90 percent and cut fuel subsidies to ease its deficit. For some perspective, the imminent threat that these subsidies’ cuts brought were horrific levels of poverty to an already suffering country. Anytime a government forces economic burdens on its people–regardless of whether it’s intended to ease economic burdens longterm—is always a recipe for disaster, and this was no different. Iran just happened to be aligned at the right moment, and Hadi fleeing to the Saudi capital of Riyadh didn’t help those relations either.

This is why some regard Iran as heroes and defend Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Fast-forward to present day, there’s a civil revolution in Iran which was brought on by the murder of Masha Amini, who was arrested and tortured by “morality police” because she was wearing skinny jeans and “incorrectly” wearing her hijab. Despite documentation of the vicious attack, the government has denied the accusations. Protests have been going on for about a month, and the movement is growing worldwide. Women are second-class citizens in Iran, which believes in leading with an Islamic law iron fist.

How does this relate to Formula One?

Since around the time of the Arab Spring, Iran started suggested that it wanted to get into Formula One, and recently, they announced plans to build a track on Qeshm Island. Vice President and Head of Iran’s Culture and Tourism, Masoud Soltanifar said he believed that Formula One had a “great future” in Iran. I previously raised concerns about this race because of how the country treats women, which simply wouldn’t work for the culture of Formula One. Iran has compulsory hijab and the consequences for any girl above nine years of age who are seen without hijab are 74 lashes and imprisonment for up to 60 days. I’ve credited Saudi Arabia for preemptively ending compulsory hijab to create a more welcoming tourism market that was conducive to FOM. But the fact that Iran is having a revolution over women’s rights means it’s time for Formula One to start getting serious about its outward positioning on the issues and Iran race potential.

Formula One already has a problem with preemptive policy implementations, so if it wants to maintain its “We Race as One” slogan, it must show the world that it prioritizes the protections of the women of the paddock, too.

It should also be noted that in recent developments regarding the Russia-Ukraine war, Iranian leaders visited Moscow to broker a deal to send weapons and drones to aid Russia in its defense. Iranian officials have stated that “where they [weapons] are being used is not the sellers issue. We do not take sides in the Ukraine crisis like the West.” This diplomat then said they wanted the war to end though diplomatic means. While Iranian officials have made their intentions to build an F1 track clear, in August, Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali said “I’ve always believed that you should never say never, but in this case, I can promise you for sure, we will no longer race in Russia.” Formula One and the FIA have presented positioning that war is a business deterrent. So once again, if this is going to be the uniformed stance moving forward, they need to codify a war policy with non-refundable terms so there isn’t any grey area with host countries moving forward.

The Middle East has a grip on about 28 percent of the world’s oil production, and with that, comes a tremendous amount of power. As we know, it also includes a tremendous potential for war and conflict. And with war comes extreme poverty and desperation, which leaders are aware of and take advantage of. With that said, if the Middle East looks to create a sphere of influence within Formula One, it’s time FOM and the FIA embrace hard-lined political positioning to ensure these countries can’t influence the sport or its operations beyond the normal scope.

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