On Sunday, Dec. 5, Saudi Arabia is hosting the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Formula One race for the first time ever. Justin Bieber, along with A$AP Rocky and Jason Derulo, will be headlining a concert at the race.
This concert announcement, however, has been met with heavy criticism as critics from all corners of the world are calling for Bieber and the other artists to cancel their appearance.
Additionally, several human rights organizations continue to mount pressure on F1’s decision to hold races in Saudi Arabia in the first place. Here’s a rundown of the situation.
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Why do people want the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix concert canceled?
Saudi Arabia has a long and recent record of human rights abuses. Women activists and journalists are among the groups most targeted by the Saudi Arabian government, with some killed or locked up amidst reported abuses including torture, unlawful detentions and unfair trials, as reported by the CBC.
The country’s ongoing history with repeated human rights abuse has spurred on repeated calls to action to cancel marquee events in Saudi Arabia, including but not limited to F1.
Dating back several years, Saudi Arabia has hosted sporting events or concerts which have been known to distract people globally from focusing on the human rights injustices made by the government. The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix concert, for example, has been called a way to “sportswash” or “whitewash” the country’s human rights abuse record.
“I think what’s clear is that Justin Bieber and other celebrities are being used by Saudi Arabia to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator,” said Farida Deif, the Canadian director of Human Rights Watch said, via The Current.
Throughout Bieber’s hometown of Los Angeles, trucks and vans have recently traveled around with electronic signs on the side pleading Bieber to cancel his show.
The fiancee of deceased Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi — killed by Saudi Arabia’s regime in 2018 — wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled “Please, Justin Bieber, don’t perform for the regime that killed my fiance.” In the piece, Hatice Cengiz pleads to Bieber and other performers to cancel their events in Saudi Arabia.
“Cancel your Dec. 5 performance in Saudi Arabia. This is a unique opportunity to send a powerful message to the world that your name and talent will not be used to restore the reputation of a regime that kills its critics,” Cengiz said, via The Washington Post. “Do not sing for the murderers of my beloved Jamal. Please speak out and condemn his killer, Mohammed bin Salman. Your voice will be heard by millions.”
Saudi Arabia spends big to bring marquee sports events
This weekend’s race and accompanying spectacle continues an ongoing plan enacted by the Saudi government.
At the beginning of 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was estimated to spend $1.5 billion on this “sportswashing” by launching his Vision 2030 plan according to a report by the human rights organization, Grant Liberty. By hosting more events in Saudi Arabia from golf and tennis tournaments to chess championships to high stakes horse races, Salman hopes to reduce the country’s dependence on oil exports. This plan, however, has received a lot of criticism from human rights groups, including the Human Rights Watch organization.
So, the F1 race won’t be the first major event held recently in Saudi Arabia, and it most likely won’t be the last. The country has hosted the Spanish Super Cup soccer tournament twice in the last three years, along with hosting a Saudi International golf tournament since 2019.
“A celebration of human achievement in sports [could] distract from serious human rights abuses that are happening in your country,” Deif said.
Other celebrities have recently canceled their events in Saudi Arabia, including Nicki Minaj and John Cena, due to similar backlash.
Concerts performed by Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and 50 Cent, to name a few, have been held in Saudi Arabia recently as well, all of which received similar backlash from fans.
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What has Formula 1 said about the criticism?
The head of Formula1, Stefano Domenicali, has been asked about his thoughts on potentially canceling events in countries like Saudi Arabia that have records of human rights abuse. Domenicali said he does not plan on canceling these F1 events because he thinks their presence helps spark progress towards abandoning human rights abuse.
“Such an important change cannot happen overnight. It is a cultural change that will take time,” Domenicali said. “But the timing will be accelerated by the fact big events are there. And Formula 1 will play an important role in that respect.”
Domenicali said he believes canceling the events would only result in negative outcomes, and that in order to help end injustices, Saudi Arabia needs an international sports presence.
“I believe the spotlight we are bringing will be beneficial for the will and the wishes of change that these countries are showing. 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,” Deomenicali said. “It doesn’t mean everything is perfect, but for sure what we are doing and what we are signing off is headed in the right direction.”
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Lewis Hamilton speaks out on Saudi Arabia
Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton spoke out about competing in Saudi Arabia for the first time ever this weekend. As a gay F1 racer, he said he does not feel comfortable competing in the country, which has strict laws against open LGBTQ+ people.
“Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do,” Hamilton told reporters on Thursday. “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 still plans to wear his helmet showing off the pride flag, even though homosexuality is illegal there. He’s hoping this awareness brings change to the country.
MORE: Lewis Hamilton wants stronger anti-racism message in F1 after some drivers wanted to stop pre-match kneeling
What have human rights organizations said?
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both released statements about this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, adding that this event is contributing to the country’s plan to “sportswash.”
“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,” Michael Page, HRW’s deputy director for the Middle East, said in a statement.
While HRW called out F1 and the musical performers to take action, Amnesty International echoed and then added that Saudi Arabia should make changes if they want to be viewed as unproblematic as they are trying to be seen.
“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,” said Amnesty International’s statement.