Formula 1 needs to take a tougher stance against Saudi Arabia's atrocities

This week marks one year since my brother Mustafa was killed by Saudi Arabian authorities, along with 80 other men – they were slaughtered in a single day by their own government.  

But you wouldn’t think this is the first anniversary of what has been described as the largest mass execution in the Kingdom’s history when you see car manufacturing giants like Ferrari, Mercedes and some of the biggest global brands meeting there for the Grand Prix, parading through a country where the death penalty is used to silence dissent.

By now, we are used to this state-sanctioned gaslighting. This is where bodies like Formula One and their corporate sponsors help the Saudi dictatorship distract from its atrocities with sporting spectacles, projecting a false image for one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

My brother, Mustafa al-Khayat, was killed in secret so my family were not told when it was taking place and we were not able to say goodbye. We only found out in the media that he was dead.

Mustafa – like the majority of men killed in the mass execution – was imprisoned and put to death because he stood up for human rights in Saudi Arabia. He joined protests calling for the sort of democratic freedoms that you take for granted in your country, so the regime took revenge and sentenced him to death.

The authorities took a political choice to make an example of Mustafa and others who spoke out against them – they killed protesters to discourage others from doing the same.

You might think that such a crime would be swiftly condemned, but while the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (who sanctions the F1) rightly decried Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March last year – announcing that races in Russia would not take place ‘until further notice’ – they still held last year’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix in the immediate wake of a massacre, seemingly carrying on as if nothing had happened.

This weekend, they will race in Jeddah once again, despite the recent spate of executions for non-lethal offences. This includes the killing of Jordanian father of eight Hussein Abo al-Kheir, in defiance of the United Nations’ call for his immediate release and international outcry about his case. 

In my eyes, Formula One is continuing to turn a blind eye to the extreme escalation in the Kingdom’s use of the death penalty, which is still used against children, pro-democracy protesters and for drug offences, according to human rights organisation, Reprieve.

In a recent statement, the F1 said: ‘For decades, Formula 1 has worked hard [to] be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits,’ according to the BBC.

They added: ‘We take our responsibilities very seriously and have made our position on human rights and other issues clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.’

But the evidence shows this isn’t working. 

Formula One’s partnership with the regime has coincided with an acceleration of Saudi executions. This shows how emboldened the regime has become, confident that it can rely on Formula One’s silence. 

Put simply, how can Formula One claim to have principles if you will not wave the red flag when scores of pro-democracy protesters are executed shortly before a race?

There has also been a shameful silence from many countries that profess to stand up for human rights and international law, apart from a few empty expressions of concern.

Worse, the leader of the brutal and unjust regime responsible for the massacre, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has been glorified on the world stage and courted by heads of state.

Just days after the mass execution last year, then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia to meet MBS. A few months later, US President Joe Biden greeted the Crown Prince with a fist bump. French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed him in Paris a few weeks after that.

In meeting the Saudi leader and failing to condemn him for the executions, I believe these world leaders were tacitly condoning his crimes. 

We need Formula One to take the same principled stance against Saudi Arabia’s atrocities that it has taken against Russia’s

From Formula One, LIV golf and heavyweight boxing championships, to Saudi’s takeover of Newcastle United, Lionel Messi becoming a Saudi tourism ambassador and Cristiano Ronaldo signing for Al-Nassr, it’s clear the regime is actively seeking to ‘sportswash’ its human rights violations.

But this continues to be made possible by the sporting bodies and corporations that sponsor them choosing to partner with this brutal dictatorship. 

It is not a coincidence that executions have spiked in Saudi Arabia while sporting bodies and world leaders signal that there will be none of the consequences that, for example, Russia has been hit with. According to Reprieve, in the seven years since MBS and his father came to power, more than 1,000 people have been executed and the rate of annual executions has almost doubled.

My family continues to mourn my brother, Mustafa. We miss his smile, jokes and calm nature that meant he was loved by so many. He stood up for us all when he protested against the regime and we will stand up for him now.

We will speak out until Saudi Arabia stops these cruel executions, but we cannot do it alone. We need Formula One to take the same principled stance against Saudi Arabia’s atrocities that it has taken against Russia’s.

It is time for the sporting industry to challenge the crimes of the Saudi ruling family before another family like mine loses a brother.

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