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The Role of Motorsport in Social Change: Did the FIA Have any Influence on the Lifting of the Ban on Women Driving in Saudi Arabia?

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Guest post by Cristiana Pace, Centre for Business in Society

Motorsport has often been labelled as a proving ground for new technologies for the automotive sector, and also lately, due to transfer of technology, for other sectors including medical, defence and aerospace.  Much less has been written on the role that motorsport has played in shaping and facilitating social change.

Historically motorsport has always welcomed female competitors. So it comes as no surprise that the FIA has not been keen on endorsing races in countries where female competitors would not be allowed to race.

In September 2017, media showcased the news that from June 2018 women will be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. The lifting of the ban, which came into effect on Sunday 24th June, was instigated by the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,  at the same time as other important economic and social reforms.  For years, previous princes had rejected the idea of women driving on the basis that ‘society would be against it’, maintaining a conservative vision for national and Islamic identity.

Renault F1 marked the law change with a Formula One parade ahead of the French Grand Prix. Saudi woman, Aseel Al-Hamad, a board member of the Saudi Arabia ASN (federation) and part of the FIA Woman in Motorsport commission, drove the E20 Renault F1 car, celebrating this historic moment in front of millions of spectators.

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Saudi Arabia has historically been involved in motorsport since 1977, when they sponsored the very first Williams’ car in the F1 championship and has since had racing drivers in the junior and GTs’ categories. But no FIA titled race has ever been held in Saudi land, so far.

On its side, FIA has traditionally given hints to the Middle East governments about the need for gender equality. I recall when I worked for the FIA, I was often sent to the Middle East with technical roles, either Safety Delegate or Deputy Technical Delegate at races, including a desert rally. During one of these events, at the end of a difficult and long stage, around the camp fire I heard a very relevant anecdote:

Many years ago, the Saudi ASN asked the FIA for a FIA titled race to be held in Riyadh. As usual, the FIA sent an observer to discuss this possibility – this observer was a well known female rally driver. The condition that come out from this discussion was that Saudi Arabia would have to lift the ban on women driving, if they were to host an FIA race.

I don’t know if this is simply one of the motorsport legendary tales that get told around the camp fire, but I like to believe that it really happened and what we have seen on Sunday was also shaped from the message motorsport gave with this gesture, in addition with the Saudi Vision 2030.

So, is motorsport playing an active role not only in technological advancement but also influencing societal changes? Or, is it a coincidence that the Race of Champions travelled to Saudi Arabia in February 2018, for the first time in 30 years, and FIA Formula E announced a 10 year deal for a race to be held in Riyadh, starting from December 2018?

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