The Problematic Saudi Arabia GP: F1’s Unsure Stance on Colonialism and Gender Inequality

There is no question that last Sunday’s Saudi Arabia GP proved entertaining, but what does the decision to race in the country despite numerous negative factors tell us about Formula One? The sport claimed to have good intentions when signing a contract to race in Saudi Arabia, but the decision underpins the ways in which colonialism and sexism continue to impact our modern world.

F1 Senior Figures and European Colonial Mindset

Despite a missile attack just miles from the track and Saudi Arabia’s largest mass execution sanctioned by the government just two weeks prior, F1 decided to continue with the second race of the season on Sunday, March 27. After meetings lasting late into Saturday night, drivers chose to back the decision.

Senior figures had plenty to say about the decision to continue with the race. In light of the controversy, McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl commented, “We shouldn’t shy back or shut ourselves off from these countries because of the criticism that we’re getting. I see the unique chance we have in sport to share this passion for Formula One, to drive this positive change. Not just on the economics, for the country here, but also in terms of positive change on the society.”

While Seidl’s platitudes about bolstering the kingdom’s economy and driving societal change seem commendable, he still affirms Saudi Arabia’s underlying problems. The European, male-dominated sport’s attempt to “change the society” presents an alarming mindset held throughout centuries.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes head of motorsport shared shared a similar opinion on “changing” Saudi Arabian society: “I’d rather come here and make the spotlight shine on the region so it needs to be in a better place, rather than say ‘I’m not going there, I don’t want to hear anything of it.’ … For us, is it acceptable to race (near) where there is a drone rocket that is going in a petrol tank? Certainly not,” Wolff said. “But for here, within their culture, these things happen. I don’t want to say ‘Well I’m not racing,’ because I’m generally someone who wants to give people the chance to better themselves.”

Rather than making a statement disproving the Saudi Arabian government, these Formula One team members are advocating that the sport has the opportunity to better the kingdom, a claim eerily similar to those made during the nineteenth-century European Civilizing Mission. We have seen these sorts of civilizing missions continue, especially when looking at U.S. imperialism; colonization has never truly left European and American rhetoric. F1’s failure to vocalize concerns about Saudi Arabia’s troublesome policies exemplifies how Western colonial ideology is still engrained in daily life.

Saudi Arabian Conservatism and Gender Inequality

In addition to factors directly affecting the race, Saudi Arabia is on a continued “human rights watch” as women are permanently relegated to the status of a legal minor. Saudi Arabian women have long suffered under travel bans and political repression– problems on which the kingdom has recently tried to address. A recent New York Times article argues that while Saudi Arabia has made progress towards women’s rights, there remains much to be done: “The guardianship system, which despite some recent reforms is still in place, means that women must rely on permission from men — often their fathers or husbands, but in some cases their sons — to enter into marriages and make key decisions.” The conservative values upheld by religious and political figures severely limit female autonomy, a topic that remains unaddressed by F1.

Saudi Arabia only recently granted women the right to drive in June of 2018 which was followed weeks later by the arrest, detainment, and torture of several women’s rights activist. In March of 2022, Alpine held a demonstration in which Aseel Al Hamad and Abbi Pulling became the first women to drive a F1 car in the kingdom. While Alpine’s move to highlight women gaining the right to drive is admirable, it could give the impression that Saudi Arabia is on a path to liberate women. While there is evidence to suggest this is true, F1 could use their position to further advocate for change. At the moment, the sport is working to strengthen an economy and a political regime that still categorizes women as second class citizens.

The world is currently unaware as to if these issues raise concern for Formula One. The sport’s website, formula1.com, has yet to address the controversy and instead is publishing articles covering race highlights. The seemingly disregard for Saudi Arabia’s continued adherence to the gender bias begs the questions, Does Formula One’s lack of female participation desensitize the sport’s awareness of Saudi Arabian gender discrimination? Would the sport have responded differently had there been female drivers on the track or more female representation overall?

Formula One is in a position of privilege and power. Simply choosing to race in politically problematic nation alone will not incite “positive change.” Using its voice will.