By Amy Woodyatt, CNN
Lewis Hamilton has said he is “not comfortable” racing in Saudi Arabia ahead of the penultimate race of the Formula One season, which takes place in Jeddah on Sunday.
“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.”
It’s the first time F1 has staged a race in Saudi Arabia. To be held at the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, the grand prix is set to be the fastest street track in F1 history, according to the event’s website.
But Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been repeatedly criticized, and activists have accused the kingdom of “sportswashing” — a phenomenon whereby corrupt or autocratic regimes invest in sports events to whitewash their international reputation.
During November’s Qatar Grand Prix, Hamilton wore a helmet featuring the Pride Progress Flag, a redesigned and more inclusive version of the traditional rainbow flag, and emblazoned with the words “We Stand Together.”
Hamilton will this weekend wear the helmet in Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal.
“A lot of change needs to take place and our sport needs to do more,” Hamilton added.
Earlier this year, human rights group Grant Liberty estimated that Saudi Arabia has spent about $1.5 billion on “sportswashing” since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched his Vision 2030 master plan, which aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil exports.
The country has spent millions on hosting a plethora of prestigious sports events, including golf, horse racing, snooker and chess tournaments, according to Grant Liberty’s 2021 report.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Saudi Arabia of using this weekend’s grand prix to “distract from widespread human rights violations” in the country.
“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.
“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,” added Amnesty International in a statement.
Earlier this year, F1’s global director of race promotion Chloe Targett-Adams told CNN that sport could be a “catalyst for change.”
When asked by CNN how she would respond to F1 coming to the Middle East in light of concerns about human rights and treatment of women, she said: “We engage with it right from the start of the process because it’s important to us that we know that we can work in a way that is in line with our values.
“We have strong guarantees in our contracts that we have with our hosts and with our race destinations about upholding those values and principles, and it’s a catalyst for change.”
CNN has reached out to the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation for comment.
A spokesperson for Formula 1 told CNN that the organization had worked hard to be “a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits.
“We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence,” the spokesperson added.
In a September interview with CNN’s Amanda Davies, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), said he’s not concerned that politics could overshadow the country’s inaugural F1 event.
“Formula One […] is wise enough to know what’s good for them and their reputation, and if they felt that Saudi Arabia is one of those countries, they would have never agreed to come,” he said.
“We want the people to come to Saudi Arabia and then see [with] their own eyes and then they can have their opinion. I respect someone’s opinion, but I need to know what is based on and what is the motivation,” he added.
“Saudi Arabia changed a lot to the positive. And hopefully, we will also continue development and opening up and changing our country to what is best for our people who live in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
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Amanda Davies and Sana Noor Haq contributed reporting.