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Sportswashing: the Gulf countries’ strategy to mask abysmal human rights records

July 26th, 2021
topics: Human Rights
by: Pierre Sagnier
located in: United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia
tags: Bahrain, human rights, Quatar, soccer, torture

The Persian Gulf monarchies constitute some of the world’s darkest holes for democracy and human rights. Their huge oil reserves have allowed them to be considered strategic allies by Western countries whose governments turn a blind eye to the monarchies’ totalitarian practices. But the general public in the “free world” doesn’t regard them as repressive dictatorships either; rather, it often views them as exotic stages for popular international sports events or generous sponsors for their beloved soccer teams. This is the result of a nearly two-decade strategy dubbed ‘sportwashing’ by the human rights community.

Many sports fans see in Saudi Arabia the set of the Italian and Spanish soccer Supercup finals, the recent host of the Dakar Rally, or the organiser of some major male and female international golf tournaments - not a kingdom that imprisons women who claim their right to drive or to have a passport and considers homosexuality a crime warranting the death penalty. 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is known by millions as the stage of another F1 race or as the generous owner of the Manchester City soccer team. People often ignore the fact that the UAE is a place where a woman (even a princess) can be kidnapped by her father if she doesn’t abide by the strict gender roles of society and where any form of freedom of press or speech is forbidden.

Qatar, on its part, is identified as the next FIFA World Cup host or as the rich owner who filled the Paris Saint-German French club with football stars - not as a place where women need the permission of a male guardian to sign a contract and where migrant workers rights, even of those who hold legal status, are persistently denied.

Sportswashing conceals lack OF DEMOCRACY, FREEDOMS 

All of the gulf countries, as well as tiny Bahrain, are countries with a total absence of democracy, freedom of speech, independent media or opposition political parties; there is also complete disrespect of human rights, particularly when it comes to women, who are regarded as second-class citizens and suffer from extreme discrimination. 

But the sports industry has won the gulf countries respectability and even popularity among Western democracies, which all but ignore the formers’ violation of human rights and freedoms.

“Sportswashing is the way by which these countries varnish their reputations, particularly in Western countries and in major media markets, by getting involved in international sport, whether that be hosting mega sports events with big-name athletes or in ownership of European and American sports franchises”, Adam Coogle, deputy director with the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, told FairPlanet.

“It’s just a way in which these countries try to change the subject, try to move any conversation on their abuse record away and instead generate press around sports events, that is a lot more positive”, he added.

The strategy started at the beginning of this century, but Coogle acknowledges that at first the gulf countries didn’t realise how effective it would be. By sponsoring popular European soccer teams, for example, these countries have created “fan bases of good-willing towards these countries because their fanatism towards their teams extends to the defense of that country with that human rights record.”

“It’s challenging sometimes to get for example members of Parliament from Manchester or other city leaders of Manchester to criticize the UAE. They wouldn’t do it. It’s too dangerous because all the Manchester City fans are going to come after them and the UAE may get offended and [threaten] the investment”, he explained.

Coogle further pointed to when Saudi Arabia tried recently to buy Newcastle United, another important team from the Premiership, and human rights organisations launched a campaign to prevent it. They were replied to on social media by furious fans of the club.

PRESSURE ON INTERNATIONAL SPORTING BODIES proves unsuccessful 

Human rights organisations have tried to put pressure on international sportings bodies that have allowed their competitions to take place in the Gulf countries. The NGOs have asked the sporting entities to show their commitment to human rights and consider them when selecting the hosts for events. Alas, they haven’t been successful so far, and a good example of that is Bahrain.

This small island nation in the Persian Gulf was one of the pioneers of sportswashing. In 2004, it hosted the first Formula 1 Grand Prix in the Middle East. By then, the human rights situation in the country was overall poor, but it was nonetheless one of the few in the Persian Gulf area that tolerated some political opposition.

Nowadays, the Bahrain Grand Prix is one of the most important racing competitions in the world, yet the level of freedoms and rights has deteriorated sharply in recent years, mostly following the regime’s reaction to the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

“Bahrain is one of the most repressed civil societies in the world, so in the Reporters Sans Frontières ‘World Press Freedom Index’ it’s ranking 168 out of 180 countries,” Josie Thum of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), a non-profit organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights in the country, told FairPlanet.

“This is partly because since 2017 there’s been an escalation of the government crackdown on civil society, so all political opposition was outlawed, all independent media was [shut] down and anybody who dissents risks serious persecution,” she added. In fact, “Bahrain has the highest [imprisoned] per capita rate in the region, alongside Israel, and we estimate that around a third of these prisoners are political prisoners.”

BIRD and many other organisations have repeatedly asked F1 to “hold its Bahraini business partners accountable and have difficult conversations to raise human rights issues, particularly when they are directly connected to Formula 1 presence in the country,” Thum further stated.

REPRESSION at the FORMULA 1 BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX

Since the 2011 uprising, some Bahrainis have protested against the hosting of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in their country while hundreds of political prisoners are being piled up and tortured in jails. But the world’s attention on the country due to the race has not prevented the authorities from fiercely repressing these demonstrations.

In 2012, a peaceful protest ended up with one person, Salah Abbas, being murdered by the police. “His body was found the day before the Grand Prix. He was beaten and shot,” said Thum.

In February 2021, she says, two children were arrested during another protest during the race: “They allegedly burnt a chair and one of them was eleven years old. He was imprisoned for seven days. They were interrogated for hours without their parents and without the presence of a [lawyer].”

Then in 2017, Najah Yusuf was arrested, tortured, sexually assaulted and sentenced to three years in prison after criticising the Bahrain Grand Prix on social media. 

“I am not opposed to Formula 1 holding events in Bahrain in general. However, like many Bahrainis, what I oppose is the way Bahrain’s government exploits the Grand Prix to present the world with a false image of the country and distract from their appalling human rights record," Yusuf from Bahrain explained in an email.

She deplores that “when wealthy tourists arrive in Bahrain, they are treated to a glamorous weekend filled with fast cars and celebrities. But they do not see what is happening outside the stadium: the tear gas fired into people’s homes, the violent attacks on protesters, the thousands of political prisoners crowded into Bahrain’s filthy prisons.”

Yusuf points out that two years ago, Formula 1 owners vowed to raise with Bahrain’s Government a call made on her behalf by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to compensate her for the abuses she was subjected to. Alas, so far “I have received no compensation and F1 have never personally contacted me,” she affirmed.

Moreover, although she was released in August 2019 with a royal pardon, Yusuf was fired from her job in the public sector and her 17-year-old son Kameel was sentenced to 30 years in prison in what human rights organisations consider a reprisal for his mother's activism.

SPORTS SPONSOR ON THE OUTSIDE, ATHLETE TORTURER ON THE INSIDE

It isn’t only protesters against the Formula 1 races who are being repressed by the authorities, however. The president of the Bahraini Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, “is very implicated himself in HR abuses against dissidents, but also specifically against athletes,” said Thum.

On the one hand, Prince Nasser promotes the Bahrain Victorious cycling team - one of the most important teams in Tour de France, which is one of the most popular sports events in Europe. On the other hand,in 2011 Sheikh Nasar established an investigative committee which was mandated to identify and punish athletes who have been involved in the protests and around 150 athletes, coaches, referees were arrested and imprisoned,” the activist affirmed. 

“A lot of them have alleged torture as well in prison and the sheikh has been personally implicated in torturing people, first-hand," she added.

As a response to the claims, Formula 1 approved in 2015 a human rights policy, but it “has completely failed to implement it and pieces of abuses continue today linked to their presence in Bahrain,” Thum said.

Human rights organisations maintain that international sporting bodies could push for a change in this issue if they truly had the will to do so. Their argument, Adam Coogle indicated, is that “engagement will lead to improvement, it will provide positive examples for these countries and they’ll automatically improve, but what we see is that never happens.”

Consequently, the verdict of the NGO about the effectiveness of sportswahsing is unanimous: it is working.

“I think really it’s working for them,” Adam Coogle concluded. “We have no problem with sports events being held in the Gulf, or the Gulf being involved in sports. [There's] nothing wrong with it; the problem is the way it’s being used by these Gulf leaders. They continue the repression and have a good reputation additionally.”

Correction (27/7/2021): An earlier version of this article had misspelled Najah Yusuf's name as Nadja, and mistakenly reported her release date as August 2020 instead of August 2019. 

Image: Joshua Hoehne

Article written by:
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Pierre Sagnier
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United Arab Emirates Saudi Arabia
Since the 2011 uprising, some Bahrainis have protested against the hosting of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in their country while hundreds of political prisoners are being piled up and tortured in jails.
© Bryn Lennon
Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa had allegedly tortured prisoner athletes who had been involved in the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
© Alex Caparros
Bahrain's crackdown on human rights and freedoms has gradually intensified since the 2011 protests.
© Sayed Baqer AlKamel/ NurPhoto
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