Activists urge boycott of Saudi-hosted Dakar Rally as activist Loujain al-Hathloul remains jailed
The famed Dakar Rally is facing calls for a boycott by women’s rights activists for holding the event in Saudi Arabia, where Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for the right of women to drive in the country, is still being held.
Activists have accused the event's organisers, the Amaury Sport Organisation, of involvement in “sportswashing” the image of the Gulf nation.
Hathloul became internationally known for her campaign to secure women the right to drive in the conservative nation, a right that was won in 2018. Just months later, Hathloul was detained by Saudi authorities. She is currently being held in Riyadh’s al-Ha’ir prison.
The Dakar Rally, which has been running since 1979, kicked off on 3 January and features over 300 entrants, including 12 women, that will race a variety of motorbikes, cars and trucks.
Starting and ending in Jeddah, this year's Dakar Rally competitors will race for 14 days across 13 stages around Saudi Arabia
This week, the race's runners and riders are due to pass within a few hundred meters of the prison where Hathloul is held. Describing the stage, the Dakar Rally website says: “Patience is a virtue in rally raids, as will be seen on this long, hard stage, where competitors who fail to control their nerves are in for a bad day.”
Lucy Rae, spokeswoman for rights group Grant Liberty, told The Guardian: “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.”
“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,” she added.
The Amaury Sport Organisation is yet to comment.
At the end of December, a Saudi court found Hathloul guilty of spying with foreign parties and conspiring against the kingdom and sentenced the activist to five years and eight months in prison.
Two years and 10 months of her sentence was suspended and the start of her jail term was backdated to May 2018, meaning that Hathloul was just three months left to serve.
Human rights campaigners described the sentencing decision as “shameful”, considering the almost three years that Hathloul was held without charge.
Family members allege that Hathloul has been subject to torture and sexual assault while in detention, allegations which Riyadh has denied.