Supporters of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia, have called for a boycott of the Dakar Rally for “sportswashing” the reputation of the conservative kingdom while Hathloul remains in prison.
Racers in the off-road competition – including 12 women – are due to pass within a few hundred metres of Riyadh’s Al-Ha’ir prison, where Hathloul is being held, on Tuesday.
“Women’s rights activists have endured years in prison, psychological and physical torture, and sexual abuse for campaigning for the right to drive. Many remain in prison to this day,” said Lucy Rae, spokeswoman for Grant Liberty, a human rights advocacy body which campaigns on behalf of Saudi prisoners of conscience.
“It is utterly grotesque that at the same time Saudi authorities will host a motor sport event – including women drivers – while the heroes that won their right to drive languish in jail.”
Amaury Sport Organisation, which runs the rally, did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent activists, was kidnapped and detained in 2018. She was jailed last month for five years and eight months in prison after being found guilty of spying and conspiring against the kingdom.
Two years and 10 months of the sentence were suspended by the court and the start of the jail term was backdated, meaning the 31-year-old has only two months left to serve, a move decision makers in Riyadh hope will defuse a potentially damaging early confrontation with the Biden administration.
Campaigners nonetheless described the sentencing as “shameful”, pointing out that Hathloul was held for almost three years without charge. The activist’s parents, who are her legal team, claim their daughter has been subjected to torture and sexual assault during incarceration and held incommunicado for long periods of time. Saudi authorities have repeatedly denied the allegations of ill-treatment.
The Paris-Dakar Rally moved to South America in 2008 after terrorism threats in west Africa. Saudi Arabia became the host last year as part of the kingdom’s multi-pronged strategy to open up to the world and wean itself off dependence on oil revenues by 2030.
Riyadh has also embarked on a series of wide-reaching social reforms since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed heir to the throne four years ago. Women gained the right to drive in 2018, a few months after Hathloul was detained, a decision interpreted as a message that change in the kingdom can only come from the top down.
The kingdom has repeatedly denied that Hathloul was arrested for campaigning for women to be allowed to drive, but instead for attempting to undermine the royal family. The case underlines how little political dissent is allowed within the country.
“No-one should be fooled by the Saudi regime’s attempts at sportswashing… Racers might not know it, but their participation there is to hide and whitewash the host’s crimes,” said Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain’s sister.
“The PR machine claims that hosting global sporting events is a sign the country is opening up, but the reality is that just a few hundred metres from the course my sister languishes in prison because she campaigned for women’s right to drive. Saudi Arabia needs real reform, real human rights, not this charade.”
As well as Hathloul, three other activists who focused on Saudi women’s right to drive – Mayaa al-Zahrani, Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jeraiwi and Samar Badawi – remain in prison.