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Formula 1

F1’s Middle East presence will ‘stabilise’ at four races

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Formula 1’s number of races in the Middle East will be “stabilised” at four events, with this weekend’s inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix completing the quartet.

F1’s first race in the region was in Bahrain in 2004, while Abu Dhabi was added in 2009.

Those remained the only two races in the Middle East until this season, when the presence doubled after Qatar and Saudi Arabia agreed lucrative multi-year deals.

Depending on the method of defining regions, the races in Bahrain, Saudi, Qatar and Abu Dhabi give the Middle East (or Western Asia) the second-biggest ‘block’ of grands prix on F1’s schedule.

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Next year there will only be three Middle Eastern races as Qatar will skip a year while hosting the FIFA football World Cup.

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali told The Race that the championship is seeking how best to balance the geographic spread of races.

“It’s a world championship,” he said. “We need to understand the potential of each region of the world.

“For example, we are really thinking also about the presence in Africa, it would be great – [also] the presence in the Far East, for sure.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Qatar Grand Prix Practice Day Doha, Qatar

“The Middle East, with this number of races, will be stabilised. Our idea is to have two at the end and two at the beginning to manage the flow of the trip.

“But all this thinking is behind it – we want to make sure that we are everywhere in the world in the regions that are connected to what will be the right place to be for our sport.

“These things are part of the equation and discussion.”

The addition of the Qatar and Saudi Arabian races have been particularly controversial because of those countries’ respective human rights records.

They have been widely criticised by human rights campaigners, while F1 has been urged to be more proactive in speaking out about the problems in these countries.

Domenicali said in a recent interview with BBC Sport, prior to the Qatar GP, that these matters require “a cultural change that will take time” and that “F1 will play an important role in that respect”.

“I believe the spotlight we are bringing will be beneficial for the will and the wishes of change that these countries are showing,” he said.

“I don’t believe that shutting countries off and saying we don’t want to be there will help the situation to improve. Actually, it will be the opposite.”

Qatar/Saudi Arabia additions demand more F1 accountability

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Qatar Grand Prix Preparation Day Doha, Qatar

F1 is far from the only sporting entity cashing in on the Middle East’s desire to host major events but that’s no excuse not to be accountable.

The uncomfortable addition of Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the calendar has prompted comments about the suitability of these races. No doubt there will be more this weekend around the inaugural Jeddah race.

And no doubt some, maybe many, are thinking: ‘If this is such a problem, and F1 shouldn’t be here, then many more races are a problem too.’ And that’s correct.

Saudi Arabia is not unique in being a country that F1 ignores problems with to race in – China, Russia and Azerbaijan, to name a few, feature more or less as problematically in various freedom indices.

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Of course, for very important reasons, Saudi Arabia moves the needle for a lot of people.

Jeddah is a new race and it’s happening this weekend. If F1 can contribute to this region’s rehabilitation as it often claims, and hold it to the standards F1 and the FIA set, then the race should come hand-in-hand with making people think about the problems that exist.

This is an enormous platform and F1 needs to find a better way to use that now it has doubled its presence in the Middle East.

Countries accused of sportswashing – and Saudi Arabia is hardly the first – should not get a free pass with the loose argument that putting them in the spotlight will gradually force them to improve.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Qatar Grand Prix Race Day Doha, Qatar

There’s a bitter taste of hypocrisy when F1 flies its #WeRaceAsOne flag without highlighting the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community in a country added to the calendar.

F1 was keen to extol proper social values when it was a hot topic – now it’s willingly racing in a place controlled by someone the United States has concluded approved the murder of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi.

It’s unrealistic to think F1 would jeopardise these massive deals by attacking its new hosts. And there’s so much more to these places than the problems caused by those in charge.

But there is a conversation to be had around these races and it’s one the championship really should engage in.

Like Qatar should have been two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia needs to be in the spotlight. This weekend should not pass without F1 contributing to the accountability many – including its world champion Lewis Hamilton – have called for.

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