Standing in a luxury spectator stand on Saturday night, Abdullah Sarhan stared down at the newest track on the Formula 1 series, as the world’s top race-car drivers roared past in a blur, during this past weekend’s Grand Prix event.
It wasn’t the race that surprised him. It was his home town in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) that was the scene.
“For years, if we wanted to see something like this, we had to travel,” said Sarhan, a 29-year-old with long curly hair, wearing jeans and T-shirt, who works for his family’s hotel company in the Red Sea coastal city. “Now it’s happening five minutes from my house.”
The sense of the world opening up has—at least for many Saudis—injected a palpable excitement and a giddy sense of newness. In numerous interviews with TIME in the kingdom over the past week, young Saudis—nearly 70% of Saudi Arabia’s 34.8 million is younger than 35—said that their lives had markedly changed during the past three years, and that they were thrilled they could finally cut loose, after decades of cultural isolation and suffocating religiosity.
To anyone visiting Saudi Arabia after a long absence, as TIME’s correspondent did last week after four years, the change is evident.
Rules forbidding women to travel without a male relative’s permission, to work in public-facing jobs, to leave their heads uncovered—and most famously, to drive—have been scrapped in the past three years. The religious police that used to detain women who violated dress codes until 2018 has disappeared from the streets.
Now, women with long flowing hair, some tinted pink or blue, fill the crowds at mass events like last weekend’s Formula 1 on Jeddah’s seafront. Even the women’s bathroom sign at the race featured a silhouette of a long-haired woman with bright lipstick.
The kingdom was thrilled to host its first ever Grand Prix. It celebrated with fireworks, crowds, and top government officials.
In the weeks leading up to the Grand Prix, it is this second prospect that has been criticized by human rights organizations. The title Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (or MBS, as he’s commonly known), is being accused of the charges. “sportswashing,” using Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth to buy its way into the biggest sporting events, and so gloss over mounting human-rights violations. It spent $900million to get 10-year hosting rights in Formula 1 and, in November, it announced its Olympic Committee. It would invest $694 Million Around 90 sports federations have been created. They train athletes from scratch in order to compete at the highest level, similar to China’s decades-old practice.
This is all part of an carefully planned strategy that MBS manages. He was 31 when his father King Salman gave him effective power in 2017. Named “Vision 2030,” MBS’s plan is geared toward ending almost 90 years of near-total dependence on vast oil reserves. The goal of the plan is to create jobs for the next generation by diversifying the economy, opening up to foreign investments and tourism that includes big sporting events.
However, human rights activists as well as others see another unstated goal. They want to keep this generation happy and content under an autocratic monarchy with little chance of Western-style democracy.
The social contract is more clearly reflected in professional sports than any other area. Saudi Arabia’s huge investments are causing a tremendous momentum that has hampered efforts to increase awareness about sportswashing and force boycotts. In October, the government’s Public Investment Fund, of which MBS is chairman, snapped up Newcastle United soccer club for $409 million, giving it a toehold into the U.K.’s powerful Premier League. According to Aada, Saudi Arabia has spent more than $1.5 billion on investment in various professional sports in the past few years, including boxing and chess.March Report Grant Liberty, a British human rights organization.
Human Rights Watch released this information earlier in the month. called the Saudi Government’s giant sports investments, including in golf and soccer, “well-funded efforts to whitewash its image, despite a significant increase in repression over the last few years.”
Saudis are not convinced that sportswashing is possible. They believe they have finally been given the opportunity to enjoy the same opportunities as the rest of us.
“The country was closed off from the world,” Reema Juffali, 29, Saudi Arabia’s first female professional race-car driver, told TIME on Sunday, on the side of the race track. “Now it is changing, and they should support us wanting to.”
Human rights watchers strongly disagree with their conclusion, seeing Formula 1 events as a endorsement for repressive regimes. They point to the country’s arrest of critics, the execution of nonviolent offenders, the heavy air bombardment of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the use of flogging as punishment for homosexuality, which remains a crime in Saudi Arabia. The most shocking was Washington’s October 2018 dismemberment and horrific murder. Post Columnist Jamal KhashoggiMBS denied that he knew of this information. A February 2002 CIA report concluded that MBS was in fact his. “absolute control” over Saudi intelligence services, Very likely, approved Operation.
Yet three years on, foreign investors—many flying into Jeddah to attend the Formula 1 event—are back in force. As the qualifying races began, the French President Emmanuel Macron, accompanied by a number of French companies, concluded his tour through the Gulf Region. He visited Jeddah on Saturday to wrap up the visit. Macron was accompanied by several French businesses, including MBS. BNP Paribas. Sanofi. EDF RenewablesSigned 27 agreements with Saudi Arabia companies. Macron was one of the first Western leaders to meet the Crown Prince since Khashoggi’s killing. U.S. President Joe Biden he refused.
All that made last weekend’s Formula 1 race an important moment in Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation, in spite of criticism by observers like Human Rights Watch. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” says Juffali, the female racing driver. ”But I think people have to come here and see it for themselves.”
Although many Saudis love the excitement of sporting events, they don’t seem to be concerned about moral issues or whether these are used for political purposes.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the [Persian] Gulf, and I’ve never once heard anyone talk about sportswashing,” says Simon Chadwick, director of the Center for Eurasian Sport at the Emlyon Business School in Paris. “If you sit in Qatar, you sit in Saudi Arabia, it is nation building, it is soft power,” he says. “Sportswashing is in the eye of the beholder.”
Saudi Arabia is not only an authoritarian country that lavishly spends on sports. It also faces allegations of sportswashing. Multibillion-dollar, global, multibillion-dollar sports industry has been able to profit from being perceived as apolitical and pleasing the crowd. However, it is becoming increasingly involved in human rights, corruption, personal agency, and other issues.
U.S. diplomats announced Monday that they will not be sending a delegation to Beijing for the winter Olympic Games. That is in response to China’s brutal repression of the Uighur Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang, and its crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong. Australia, Canada and Great Britain also declared diplomatic boycotts against the Beijing Olympics. Some are calling for Bossa Nova The 2022 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament next November in Qatar in protest against the wealthy Gulf state’s human rights record, following the deaths of dozens of migrant construction workers. Qatar is also against homosexuality, as does Saudi Arabia. Qatar has spent approximately $200 billion on infrastructure to host the tournament. It is also reportedly spending about $800 million annually for its security.500 Million for the Premier League’s broadcast rights in the Middle East and North Africa—again drawing fury from human-rights observers.
As the controversy raged over the Jeddah car races, the world’s top race-car driver Lewis HamiltonHe wore a rainbow Pride helmet in Jeddah as a support for gay rights. Hamilton won the Saudi Grand Prix. In a wild final race He is now one step closer at winning eight Formula 1 titles, as he did Sunday night.
Although more nations are facing accusations of sportwashing, it is evident that many Americans have complex issues. In Saudi Arabia, for example MBS has maintained an authoritarian regime while allowing Saudis a markedly more relaxed personal lifestyle than they have enjoyed for decades—a two-pronged strategy that has helped toto consolidate his power.
Saudis now feel that they have the right to enjoy the same cultural experiences as their European counterparts, even though they are unable to elect their leaders nor march in protests in America or Europe.
In a country where live music had been banned for decades until 2018, thousands of young Saudis partied until 2.30 a.m. at Formula 1 on Saturday and Sunday at blowout post-race concerts by Justin Bieber, and DJ megastars David Guetta and Tiësto. Giant monitors ran along the track showed other music during breaks, and there were many women dancing behind them in hot-pink, sequined bodysuits.
Saudi Arabia banned movie theatres until 2018. This was because they were considered Islamicly incompatible. There are now multiplexes throughout Riyadh or Jeddah that pack theaters with movie titles like Gucci House. In the capital Riyadh, more than two million people have visited a giant entertainment zone called Riyadh Season over its six-week run, where they can catch nightly music or dance performances, go rock-climbing, or whizz down the world’s longest slide.
“Everything is different,” says Salma Sultan, 37, describing her life over the past three years. Riyadh mother to her six-year old daughter, Salma Sultan, 37, learned to drive when the ban on women driving was lifted. On her weekends, she now drives for a rideshare company and supplement her civil-service salary. “I am finally independent,” she says.
The new regime allowed Sultan to earn a decent living, but at a much more prestigious end of the economy. It has also enabled the flourishing, generously funded, Saudi sports industry. A permanent Formula 1 track is currently being constructed in Riyadh’s sprawling Qiddiya entertainment, sports and city. It is being developed by Six Flags, an amusement-park giant. There is a separate Formula E track for electric race cars, in Riyadh’s restored historic area of Diriyah, with a race scheduled for February.
Some observers have been following the industry over years and believe that sports organizations are a part of the dynamic in Saudi Arabia. Bidding wars for sports clubs and hosting deals for events like the Olympics, Formula 1, and the FIFA soccer World Cup have increasingly attracted—and been won by—rich, state-dominated countries, like Russia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Paris Saint-Germain, one of Europe’s wealthiest soccer clubs, is able to pay its superstar players Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar small fortunes partly because it is owned by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund.
Formula 1 is often associated with glamour and star-studded crowds. The Formula 1 international federation (known as the FIA) has been signing increasingly large hosting agreements. “The sport faces some huge challenges if it wants to preserve its reputation and not be known as a money-grabbing plutocracy,”Formula 1 Analyst Last year was the year Saudi Arabia signed its hosting agreement.
Sarhan, a racing fan from Jeddah, didn’t view a plutocracy. He saw a race track and fans of the sport. What he saw was young Saudis like himself being able to enjoy themselves in a way they weren’t able to before 2018. As he looked around at Formula 1’s luxury stand and saw the young people sipping sodas and laughing, he rejected the notion of sportswashing. He embraces what he considers new freedoms. “You would never see this before,” he said. The crown prince’s ambitious plans for the kingdom indicate that young Saudis like Sarhan will see more evenings like it.
—Sean Gregory reports