If all goes to plan, and COVID-19 stays at bay, the historic Saudi port town of Jeddah will welcome the kingdom’s first Formula One racing event in the fall of 2021.
For Saudi Arabia, this is more than just a race. In recent years automotive events have become part of a plan to diversify their economy away from an overt reliance on oil. More than that, racing and other sporting events across the kingdom are relaxing once strict gender norms and opening new places for women.
Until 2018, women were barred from driving in the country. Yet, Saudi Arabia’s current obsession with motorsport events isn’t just about getting women behind the wheel or putting more Saudis in the stands at world class sporting events. It is as much about putting Saudi citizens in the workshops used for automotive engineering or the closed door of the C-suite meetings of the industry at large.
“These things were unheard of in the past and now they are happening [in Saudi Arabia]. They’re finding support also from the players and their families, Things are changing …and we have to make sure that it changes in the right way with the right moment to make sure that we put the right steps in and for it to be sustainable for the future,” said Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal in an interview with Arab News.
He placed autosport at the center of those changes during the Arab News interview. Saudi Arabia was the third country in the Middle East to host a Formula One event after Bahrain and Abu Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Conversely, it was the first in the region to host a Formula E event in 2018. Both events play a key role in the diversification of the economy and empowerment of women in line with Saudi Vision 2030 – the country’s long-term development plan.
“We’ve seen the first tourist visa because of Formula E in 2018. We’ve seen live concerts, we’ve seen big social change and part of this change is an ongoing development that is happening within the Kingdom… the Crown Prince believes in the power of sports to change lives within the Kingdom,” said Turki Al Faisal.
Recently the Saudi national oil company, ARAMCO, announced its plan to help fund the F-1 in Schools contest in Melbourne, Australia. That is just one small part of how the Formula One race is seen as a developmental opportunity for the kingdom. The F-1 in Schools event uses something most school children grasp inherently the thrill of an auto race to get children interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects. The event groups school children (aged 11–19 depending on the jurisdiction) into small groups racing model cars against one another.
The F-1 in Schools contest is held in Saudi Arabia too, but the country has neither placed in an Formula One event or hosted the “F-1 in Schools” championships. However, Saudi Arabia hosted a first of its kind event associated with the Formula E event in Diriya last year that had a similar goal.
The FIA Girls on Track, the first of its kind globally involved Saudi girls in the Formula E event as means to encourage interest in STEM careers.
The program included partnerships with the Rokit Venturi Racing Team’s Principal Susie Wolff and Jaguar Racing’s Reema Juffali. Juffali, it is worth noting, holds the distinction of being the first Saudi woman to compete as a race car driver both in the Formula E event and in other events in the region. After driving for the first time in Boston, during the period when women behind the wheel were banned in Saudi Arabia. She soon decided to focus on driving as a competitive sport.
“Hosting this event in Saudi Arabia alongside the high-profile Diriyah E-Prix is a big step towards promoting gender equality in our industry and one we hope will be adopted by ASNs in the region,” said Michele Mouton, president of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission at the time.
Saudi Arabia is set to host another ePrix event in Diriya in February. Women also participated in the Saudi Dakar Rally last year. Hundreds of vehicles of all shapes and sizes are currently being shipped from France to Saudi Arabia in time for the launch in early January a scaled down version of Paris-Dakar Rally. Saudi Arabia hosted the event for the first time last year. This year’s version was expected to include neighboring countries, possibly Jordan or Egypt, but, was scaled back due to the Corona virus.
Historic changes aside there are other reason that the automotive world will always keep an eye on Saudi Arabia. Not least because Saudi Arabia’s status as the largest automotive market in the Middle East for car sales and automotive parts – accounting for 40 percent of all sales in the region.