F1 money given to Syrian organisation with strong links to Assad regime

Jack de Menezes
President Bashar al Assad's government has close ties to the Syrian Automobile Club: Getty

As much as €150,000 of money generated from Formula One has been given to a Syrian motorsport organisation that has strong links to President Bashar al Assad’s government, it has been revealed.

The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), F1’s governing body, has granted up to €50,000 [£45,828] per year since 2014 to the Syrian Automobile Club as part of its Sport Grant Programme, a scheme that is “dedicated to developing motor sport”.

The FIA allows grants to be paid to all 245 members, with the money generated directly from F1 in an effort to filter finances down the motorsport ladder to improve grassroots racing.

The money has helped fund motor racing events in Syria over the last three years, but an ITV News investigation has revealed that many of these events were sponsored by the Assad regime.

Furthermore, the Syrian tourism minister, Bishir Yazigi, has used these events to publically praise the Assad regime. Yazigi is currently barred from entering the European Union under EU sanctions and his European assets have been frozen because he “shares responsibility for the regime’s violent repression against the civilian population”, according to EU filings.

The revelations come at a time when the Syrian government has been accused of carrying out the chemical attack in Khan Shaykun earlier this year, according to a United Nations Commission released this week.

Mr Assad and his government have been vilified for their role in a conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced more than five million people to flee their homes. International observers have accused it of using chemical weapons and barrel bombs against its own citizens.

State-run Syrian Arab News Agency (Sana) reported in 2014 that a rallycross championship was organised in the Damascus countryside by the SAC in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism, with another drifting event held the following year by the same two bodies on a track that, Sana claimed, had been destroyed by terrorists and rebuilt by the SAC.

Yazigi has confirmed that these events were sponsored by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, and he hoped that by holding motorsport meetings in the war-torn country, the “true image” of Syrian people would be revealed.

“Sponsored by Syrian ministry of tourism, Syrian Automobile Club (SAC) organises the eleventh Championship for speed race in Ma’arat Sednaya in Damascus countryside, with the participation of more than 30 contestants,” Yazigi wrote on Facebook.

He added: “[The events] reflects the strong will of the Syrians and their ability to be renewable and to continue their normal life.

“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 event reflects the great will of Syrian youth for the continuity of life and for resurrection and new birth.”

Rallying has been held in parts of Syria over the last three years (Getty)

The grants from the FIA have been awarded to the SAC for varying reasons across the three-year period, as revealed by The Independent reporter Christian Sylt. In 2014, the money donated was in order to acquire, repair and paint an ambulance unit to attend the motoring events as well as train the six medical personnel required to run it, with 2015’s grant used to buy rally equipment for drivers such as helmets, overalls and seatbelts to “encourage more drivers and co-drivers to participate in safe rallying”.

The most recent FIA grant was used for the “purchase of timing equipment and karts and associated officials training and re-launch of karting races”.

The FIA, Formula One’s governing body, is facing scrutiny over the grants (Getty)

The scheme, while fully legal and approved, has raised concerns given that Syria has been torn apart by a civil war involving President Assad’s forces. Alison McGovern MP, co-chair of Friends of Syria APPG, has called on the British Government to investigate the matter through the Culture, Media and Sport select committee or through Parliament.

“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,” said Ms McGovern. “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.

Alison McGovern has called for the FIA grants to be investigated (Getty)

“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.”

FIA president Jean Todt has not addressed the grants paid to the SAC (Getty)

The FIA has not disclosed how much money has been given to the SAC, though the maximum amount allowed is €50,000 per grant. There is no suggestion that the grants are illegitimate or improperly handled, and neither the SAC nor its president, Walid Shaaban, are subjects to any sanctions.

The FIA also confirmed that they hoped to use the SAC to help “development and peace” in Syria.

“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,” an FIA spokesman said.

“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.”