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F1 races into a storm over FIA payments to Syria

NEWS STORY
06/09/2017

Formula One has raced into its latest political storm after an investigation by Christian Sylt for ITV News revealed that money from the sport has been paid to an organisation in Syria which is sponsored by Bashar al-Assad.

The money was paid by F1's governing body, the FIA, and it comes from the annual fees paid by the sport's teams, drivers and parent company. The Syrians used the money to buy, amongst other things, an ambulance, helmets, overalls and timing equipment.

It helped the Syrians to host a range of events, including drift races and rallies, which were used as propaganda by Assad's Minister of Tourism who is subject to sanctions by the European Union. It makes F1's previous political scandal - the cancellation of the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix - seem minor in comparison.

The FIA comprises 245 motoring and motor sport clubs across 143 countries. In the UK one of its motoring members is the AA whilst the Motor Sports Association (MSA) is the sole national governing body for four-wheel motor sport.

The motor sport clubs are responsible for the governance of all major forms of motor sports in the countries they cover. They wield power because one motor sport club in each country votes at the FIA's annual general meeting so small nations have the same say as far larger ones.

The motor sport member club is known as an Autorité Sportive Nationale (ASN), or National Sporting Authority. Decisions put to the clubs include approval of the FIA's budget and the election of its president with the next opportunity for change coming later this year when current incumbent Jean Todt's term comes to an end.

In 2013 he signed the FIA up to a new governance contract, the Concorde Agreement, named after the location of the its Paris headquarters on the famed Place de la Concorde, with F1's parent company.

As ITV revealed in April, F1 paid the FIA £3.9 million ($5 million) in recognition of it entering into the contract which also boosted the annual regulatory fee it receives from F1 by £10.4 million to £19.3 million. Fees from teams and drivers also accelerated by a combined £4.6 million giving the FIA a total gain of £18.9 million ($24.5 million). Sure enough, according to the FIA's accounts for 2013, revenue increased by £19.1 million ($24.7 million) and it made a net profit of £12.4 million ($16 million).

According to documents from the FIA, in 2014 it used funds from the Concorde Agreement to launch a Sport Grant Programme. The FIA described it as "a new source of funding for National Sporting Authorities" and added that "the Fund is dedicated to developing motor sport and helping to strengthen ASNs." Applications are open to all FIA clubs and the Syrian Automobile Club (SAC) has taken full advantage of this.

The documents state that the purpose of the first grant to Syria was to "acquire a fully functioning intensive care unit ambulance to be available for its sporting events, as well as the future rescue training programmes that the organisation would be involved in." They add that the project "involved repairing and painting the vehicle, equipping it with all necessary medical kit and appointing and training the six drivers, paramedics and doctors - two of each - that would be needed to safely and correctly operate the vehicle at motor sport events."

The second grant was used to buy new equipment for rally drivers including helmets, overalls and seatbelts. The FIA documents state that "the aim of the programme would be to encourage more drivers and co-drivers to participate in safe rallying."

The most recent grant was for the "purchase of timing equipment and karts and associated officials training and re-launch of karting races." The FIA documents add that this involves the organisation of two or three races each featuring 15 drivers. It isn't clear how much money was paid but the maximum amount available for each grant is £46,000 (€50,000) so the SAC could have been granted as much as £138,000 (€150,000). This isn't its only source of funding.

According to state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), in 2014 a rallycross championship on a dirt track in the Damascus countryside was organised by the SAC in cooperation with Syria's Ministry of Tourism. The following year SANA reported that the Ministry of Tourism and the SAC joined forces again to organise Syria's first drift championship. SANA claimed that the event was held at a track which had been destroyed by terrorists and rebuilt by the SAC.

Tourism Minister Bishr Yazigi attended the event and, according to SANA, said that it "reflects the strong will of the Syrians and their ability to be renewable and to continue their normal life."

He added that "the Ministry of Tourism supports and encourages everything that could deliver a true image about the Syrians who are still practising their works, activities and hobbies despite of the fierce war launched against them by the enemies of humanity."

The European Union has sanctions against Yazigi meaning that he is barred from entering the EU and his assets in Europe have been frozen. EU filings state that there are restrictions against him because he "shares responsibility for the regime's violent repression against the civilian population".

It isn't the first time that the Ministry of Tourism has tried to whitewash the atrocities which have taken place in Syria since its civil uprising began six years ago. According to data from the United Nations (UN) it has left more than 300,000 people dead and led to 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance.

Last year the Ministry of Tourism released a video which portrays the country as a glamorous sun-filled holiday resort complete with expensive speedboats and packed beaches. It opened with sweeping views of the country's coastline showing hundreds of bathers swimming in the sparkling sea. This was followed by footage of a luxury seaside villa complex and culminated in the slogan 'Syria - Always Beautiful'.

Messages on Yazigi's social media channels and the website for Syria's Ministry of Tourism reveal that as recently as July last year it sponsored SAC events. Writing on Facebook, Yazigi announced: "Sponsored by Syrian ministry of tourism, Syrian Automobile Club (SAC) organizes the eleventh Championship for speed race in Ma'arat Sednaya in Damascus countryside, with the participation of more than 30 contestants."

Local television broadcasts showed the FIA and Syrian flags flying side-by-side, while Yazigi added that the "event reflects the great will of Syrian youth for the continuity of life and for resurrection and new birth."

Remarkably, at the same time that the racing was taking place in Sednaya, according to Amnesty International thousands of people were being slaughtered there. In February it claimed that as many as 13,000 people had been killed in a jail there over a five-year campaign of torture under Assad's regime. They estimated that up to 50 people were being killed each week on average after confessions were made under torture with trials often lasting just minutes.

Alison McGovern MP, co-chair of the Friends of Syria All Party Parliamentary Group, called for the British government to investigate and said:

"Syria is a country where there have been terrible abuses of people's rights, most fundamentally their right to life; where starvation has been used as a weapon of war. It's not a place where you would think they ought to be hosting sporting events and I think that fans of Formula One will wonder what on earth is going on in the sport that they love that just want to watch on telly or turn up and enjoy. That money is being put into a country that we have all seen on our TV screens has been torn apart by war and conflict since 2011. I cannot imagine how anyone would take the decision to put money there for sporting activities of any kind.

"Personally I would like for there to be an investigation into this. Whether that's for Britain, perhaps through the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, in parliament or through other means. I would welcome our parliament and government taking a very serious look at this issue. They are going to have to explain what's happened here and if they have broken sanctions then absolutely it's a very serious matter and I would expect them to hold their hands up and seriously work to make sure this can never happen again."

Neither the SAC nor its president Walid Shaaban are subject to sanctions and there is no suggestion that the projects which receive funding are illegitimate or that the application process is improper. Although the grant money comes from F1 it plays no part in the decision about where it ends up. Indeed, the FIA documents explain the hoops that applicants have to jump through.

An FIA spokesperson told ITV: "The grants provided to the Syrian Automobile Club are part of the FIA Grant Programme which has benefited over 101 countries and have helped ASNs to develop and improve safety standards.

"The current sanctions in place against Syria have been closely examined and the FIA does not believe that in paying these grants to the Syrian Automobile Club, any sanctions have been broken. They covered for example the cost of buying an intensive care unit ambulance and safety equipment for rally drivers. The FIA is committed to deal with its members in a non-discriminatory, non-political manner, as laid down in its statutes.

"The FIA is provided with interim and completion reports to ensure that its grants are spent in accordance with their original purposes. These include invoices related to the project which are sent to the FIA for assessment. All proper reports have been provided and invoices for equipment acquired.

The spokesperson added that: "All FIA grants are in keeping with the role of International Sports Federations to promote peace through sport and follows the advice from the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace.

"The FIA aims to promote values such as teamwork, fairness, discipline and respect for the opponent which can be harnessed in the advancement of social cohesion and peaceful coexistence.

"The Syrian Automobile Club has worked very hard to keep motorsport going in this war-ravaged country and we look forward to seeing motorsport in the region helping development and peace through sport."

On the evidence thus far... it isn't working.

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by Paul RB, 07/09/2017 15:02

"Syrian automobile "club". Apologies for typo!"

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2. Posted by Paul RB, 07/09/2017 15:00

"Funding a sporting organisation in a dictatorship (Syria being described as thus by the West because it suits their purpose and salves their conscience) has nothing to do with supporting said government. As stated in another comment there were histrionics about Bahrain, as if this was a novel occurrence. I lived in the region, inc Bahrain for many years and anyone who know the region will know that the Shi'aa suppression by the Sunni minority has been going on forever, the same as it has in the the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. There are frequent protests and riots year on year, not just since F1 came to Bahrain! The fact that the Bahrain government is relatively benign compared with Saudi Arabia (with the emphasis on "relatively") allows these protests to be more prevalent. If people want to get exercised by these events they should get on and do something about it, not just because there happens to be a Grand Prix that weekend. Similarly, the FIA funding a Syrian automobile shouldn't be a cause for mock indignation - rather, if people really care, they should be doing something about these things all of the time."

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3. Posted by Blasbri, 07/09/2017 11:09

"Sorry, but I can't see how this is more serious than the Bahrain GP scandal.

Back then, we were not talking about a competition about which hosting country is the one that vulnerates Human Rights the most. In reality, we were talking about a direct link between hosting an F1 GP and torture: if the race was going to take place, more people would be harmed to ensure "normality" and no security threats for the racing guests. No race, less violence and less image-washing for the regime. Could F1 have been involved in a more serious and shameful role?

As far as is told by this article, in Syria the FIA has provided funds and material to an ASN of a country ruled by a dictatorship; nothing different to what it does in many African and Asian countries. And it's obvious that in those places nothing escapes to the control of their undemocratic governments. The question of EU sanctions is fairly debatable from a geopolitical point of view, as is the final statement of this piece: What for sure hasn't worked until now has been the support to those lovely "rebels" better known today as ISIS. Has anybody taken notice of Deir Ezzor liberation earlier this week?

Nonetheless, I concede that what does not look very sensible is to promote motorsport or whatever in a country on a civil war."

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4. Posted by Stitch431, 07/09/2017 8:04

"Could it be, that this is one of the countries that voted for Jean Todt? It seems to me someone should look into that. Somehow this reminds me of the ways of a certain Sepp Blatter "

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