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Formula 1: Lewis Hamilton speaks out on human rights ahead of Saudi Grand Prix

Hamilton said he had received a warm welcome on arrival in the kingdom but felt 'duty-bound' to raise rights issues
Hamilton said the law relating to the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia was 'pretty terrifying' (AFP)

Seven-times Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton expressed concern about human rights in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, indicating he did not feel comfortable about having to race in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is hosting a Grand Prix for the first time this weekend, a night race around a street circuit in Jeddah, with rights groups accusing the country of using the event to deflect scrutiny from abuses.

Hamilton, the sport's most successful driver, said he had received a warm welcome on arrival but felt "duty-bound" to speak out.

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The Briton, who has used his platform to campaign for diversity and equality, said the Liberty Media-owned sport needed to do more.

"Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn't say that I do," said the Mercedes driver. "But it's not my choice to be here. The sport has taken the choice to be here."

Hamilton, who wore a Progress Pride helmet at last month’s Qatar Grand Prix to draw attention to LGBTQ+ intolerance, will wear it again this weekend in Saudi Arabia, where homosexual relations are also a criminal offence.

Golf, tennis, horse racing and boxing are just some of the major sports that have seen events staged in the kingdom, leading rights campaigners to accuse Saudi Arabia of trying to "sportswash" its human rights record.

In March, a report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group, said that Saudi Arabia had spent at least $1.5bn on such events in a bid to bolster its reputation. 

Rights groups say allowing the kingdom to be so involved in world sports helps its rulers normalise their behaviour by shifting attention away from Riyadh's well-documented human rights violations, including its crackdown on internal dissent and its leading role in the war in Yemen.

'Pretty terrifying'

Hamilton said the laws relating to the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia was "pretty terrifying", in addition to Riyadh's women's rights record.

"There's changes that need to be made. For example women's rights of being able to drive (legally) in 2018, it's how they are policed," he said. "Some of the women are still in prison from driving many, many years ago.

"So there's a lot of changes that need to happen and I think our sport needs to do more."

Formula 1 boss Stefano Domenicali has argued that sport can help bring change, even if it will take time for that to happen.

"As soon as these countries choose to be under the spotlight Formula 1 is bringing, there is no excuse. They have taken the route of a change," the Italian told Sky Sports television recently.

'Duty-bound' to raise awareness

On Wednesday, more than 40 organisations called on Hamilton to address a number of human rights concerns with the president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation.

In a letter shared with Middle East Eye, the groups thanked Hamilton for his remarks in November, when he said that as Formula 1 comes to countries such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar, the sport is "duty-bound" to raise awareness over human rights issues.

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"We hope you choose to continue your brave advocacy in Formula 1 and speak out on the human rights issues taking place in the countries where the sport decides to go," the letter said.

The letter's signatories include Saudi rights group ALQST; the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy; Code Pink; Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN); Freedom First; Gulf Centre for Human Rights; and #FreeLoujain campaign group.

Formula 1 launched a "We Race As One" campaign last year to help highlight and tackle issues such as racism and inequality.

Four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel said it was clear "some things are not going the way they should" but change took time and he preferred to highlight positive examples of progress.

"For sure there are shortcomings and they have to be addressed but I still feel the more powerful tool is the positive weapon," he said.