How Formula E Is Helping Saudi Arabia Push a False Message of Reform

The first international racing series to visit Saudi Arabia comes at a convenient time for the troubled kingdom.

byKyle Cheromcha|
Culture photo


When the 2018-19 Formula E Championship season kicked off in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 15, Loujain al-Hathloul was nowhere in sight. Which might seem odd, considering who she is; the 29-year-old activist and fierce opponent to the kingdom's female driving ban might have made an ideal spectator for the inaugural Ad Diriyah ePrix, whose schedule included a support race featuring the first women to ever drive competitively on Saudi soil. Yet her absence that weekend was no accident. 

As teams backed by names like Jaguar and BMW unloaded their shiny new Spark Gen2 cars (now with batteries capable of finishing an entire 45-minute race) and special visa-toting Western tourists filtered into the capital to enjoy the race weekend festivities, al-Hathloul sat 500 miles away in the darkness of Jeddah's Dhahban Central Prison, where she's languished since her arrest in May on unspecified national security grounds.

Seven months later, she still hasn't been charged with anything. She's also been tortured, sources told Amnesty International in November, subjected to floggings, electric shocks, sexual harassment, and long periods of solitary confinement—as have at least nine other detained women who dared to challenge the status quo in some way. Some bear obvious physical signs of abuse, the sources said, such as uncontrolled shaking and difficulty walking. One has reportedly attempted suicide multiple times.

Loujain al-Hathloul driving before her arrest in May., via YouTube

Now in its fifth season, the all-electric FIA Formula E Championship seems to be falling into a groove. It counts well-respected drivers like former F1 great Felipe Massa among its ranks, and more major manufacturers than ever before are involved as it stakes a claim to the future of racing. But progress doesn't come cheap; the series has never made a profit, most recently losing over $20 million in the last fiscal year. And so even as it presents itself as a cleaner form of motorsport, Formula E is falling into the dirty old business of cozying up to oppressive regimes willing to pay huge hosting fees to keep the lights on.

To be sure, Formula E isn't the only sports entity to deal with a dictator or two. Just look at Formula 1, the pinnacle of racing, and its stops in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Russia, Singapore, and other bastions of authoritarianism in 2018. FIFA has certainly looked the other way as Qatar uses literal slave labor to build its 2022 World Cup facilities. The International Olympic Committee doesn't care who writes the checks. But amid international outrage at Saudi Arabia over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its brutal military campaign in Yemen, Formula E picked an especially bad time to get in with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Stoffel Vandoorne races during the Formula E Championship Ad Diriyah ePrix on December 15., Getty Images

The race on December 15 was the opening round of a 10-year deal that the series' management company, also called Formula E, signed with Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority back in May 2018. This was before photos of famine-ravaged children in Yemen outraged the world, before Khashoggi walked into a Saudi consulate in Turkey and never walked out. Still, the country's abysmal human rights record drew immediate criticism of the announcement. CEO Alejandro Agag offered a defense that's aged astoundingly bad.

"Of course, when you go a place, you have to respect the culture and the rules, and as long as you do that, you have zero reasons for concern... if I come [to Berlin] and I [rob] a bank, I have a problem, so that's why I don't do it," he told Autosport at the time. "As long as you respect the laws and the rules, Saudi Arabia is super-welcoming..."

Of course, we know that's not true at all. But what is true is that Formula E's decision to spend a week in Riyadh every year for the next decade comes down to simple math: There's more money to be made in ignoring abuses of power than in calling them out. President Donald Trump said as much when he declared he was "not going to destroy the economy of our country" and alienate Saudi Arabia after the CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed most likely ordered Khashoggi's murder in October. 

The Drive reached out to Formula E for comment; we'll update this story if we hear back.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Getty Images

Mohammed bin Salman's dichotomous reign as crown prince—second in command to the king, and the real seat of power in the monarchy—began in June 2017. He entered the global scene as a quasi-populist reformer bent on catapulting Saudi Arabia's economy and politics into the 21st Century. Things are far murkier a year and a half later, but what's always been clear is his belief in the public relations value of sports.

Six months before his ascension, MBS, as he's often known, used his authority as president of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs to create the kingdom's first Sports Development Fund, which aims to build domestic athletics and attract international series and exhibitions. It might seem like just another spigot for Saudi Arabia's oil money—the Saudi sovereign wealth fund should ring a bell to Tesla or Uber watchers—but there's also nothing to distract people like a big splashy sports event. And few things offer the worldly spectacle of an international race weekend.

Getty Images

No financial specifics of the 10-year deal with Formula E have been revealed, but odds are it's big for both parties. It's the most visible sign yet that Saudi Arabia wants to be more of a cultural player on the international stage, and it's a large financial bet on a racing series that's yet to really take off (though things appear to be moving in the right direction).

At the same time, it's also a sizable moral gamble for Formula E. There's a real risk when one of your biggest partners is in the business of torturing and killing dissidents. MBS has presided over some genuine improvements in Saudi Arabia, including an end to the kingdom's notorious female driving ban; at the same time, Reuters reports his recently deposed royal adviser Saud al-Qahtani "personally oversaw" the torture of women's rights activists like al-Hathloul.

Other reforms have been mostly superficial. The strict guardianship law that gives husbands almost complete control over their wives remains intact, for example. And the killing of Khashoggi by MBS's associates shows that political dissent still warrants the death penalty.

Getty Images

But the show must go on, and preparations for Formula E's December debut marched on through the fall with everyone in lockstep. It certainly helped that the crown prince's brother owns Arab News, one of the larger English-language publications in the Middle East; it's spent the last six months tapping out a steady drumbeat of uncritical stories like "Formula E set to revolutionize motorsport fans’ experience at Ad Diriyah E-Prix in Saudi Arabia" and "Saudi Arabia’s new Formula E track hailed ‘beautiful’ as racing teams arrive".

And if Saudi and Formula E officials weren't eager to answer the thorny questions, it's not like people were lining up to ask them, either. After Khashoggi's murder, numerous big-name companies like Google and JP Morgan dropped out of bin Salman's planned "Davos in the desert" investor conference amid mounting international pressure. But Formula E seemed to fly under the radar, issuing a statement in October confirming the Riyadh race would still be held and refusing to comment further.

What is Formula E's responsibility here? Short of ending its partnership and scrambling to find another host city, the least it could do is acknowledge the fact that this money comes from a questionable place, that its new friend isn't perfect. Again, Formula E presents itself as the future. Even if F1 isn't going to stand up to people like Vladimir Putin in a world where dirty money seems to be everywhere, its electric heir apparent could do more than fall into the same pattern of obsequiousness, especially in an era when companies are being held morally accountable in a way many haven't before. Agag has said numerous times that he believes sports and politics shouldn't mix, the old clarion call to look the other way.

António Félix da Costa stands victorious after the race., Getty Images

By all accounts, the Ad Diriyah ePrix was a solid race on a great track, and the whole weekend ran without a hitch. About 23,000 fans showed up to watch former German Touring Car Championship driver António Félix da Costa take the win for BMW i Andretti Motorsport and enjoy concerts by acts like One Republic, David Guetta, and Jason Derulo—a rarity in the ultra-conservative land. A test session for would-be rookie drivers featured no fewer than nine women on the grid. But what did attendees think of MBS using the contest as political and moral cover? Not much. Too distracted.

"This is a major change in Saudi Arabia and we are proud of it," 29-year-old Abdelrahman al-Mahmoud told the Associated Press at the race before saying he didn't want to discuss Khashoggi or politics in general. "We are a world class country and our events should reflect that. This, to me, is the biggest event I have been to in the region," Arab News quoted a man named Mohaisin as saying. "Just forget the politics and you can relate to people all over the world," an American tourist told Reuters. "That applies to Saudi Arabia, too."

Unfortunately, Loujain al-Hathloul and millions of other Saudis can't just forget the politics—that's not the world they live in. Real change takes much longer than an electric race car can run.

Female racer Amna Al Qubaisi stands after the rookie test session., Getty Images