Motor racing-Lawmakers raise 'sportswashing' concerns ahead of F1 opener

LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - A group of parliamentarians from across Europe wrote to the Emirati head of Formula One’s governing body on Wednesday to voice concern about ‘sportswashing’ in Gulf countries ahead of the season-opening race in Bahrain on Sunday.

The letter, seen by Reuters and signed by 90 parliamentarians from Britain, Spain, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy and Germany as well as the European parliament, also accused Formula One of double-standards.

Mohammed ben Sulayem was elected president of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) in December.

The Middle East has three races this year -- in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi -- with Qatar returning in 2023. All have long-term deals, with Bahrain recently agreeing an extension to 2036.

The accusation of ‘sportswashing’ is levelled at countries perceived to be using sport to improve their tarnished image abroad.

The letter noted that Bahrain and the UAE are participants in a Saudi-led military coalition involved in an eight-year-long war in Yemen against the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement.

The signatories applauded the FIA for cancelling the Russian Grand Prix after the invasion of Ukraine but asked it to “apply the same moral standards in condemning violations and supporting victims in all countries where F1 races take place.

“We are concerned that the FIA and F1 are actively facilitating sportswashing in Gulf countries and their continued failure to raise abuses committed by these regimes creates a stark double standard,” the letter added.

Formula One said it “worked hard to be a positive force wherever it races”, took its responsibilities on rights very seriously and had high ethical standards written into contracts.

The Bahrain government said the kingdom “led human rights reform in the region and to suggest otherwise does not reflect current-day reality.

“Bahrain welcomes and actively supports the role Formula One can play in shedding light on human rights issues in all countries it operates in, now and in the future,” said a spokesperson.

The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) has also written to Formula One boss Stefano Domenicali and four drivers who spoke out against the war in Ukraine, including reigning champion Max Verstappen. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)