Words by Christian Sylt, video report by Sports Editor Steve Scott
An investigation by ITV News has revealed that money from Formula One is being handed to a motor racing organisation in Syria which arranges events associated with President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Over the past three years motor racing’s regulator the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has handed its member club in Syria a share of the multi-million pound fees paid by the company which controls the rights to F1 as well as the teams and drivers.
The FIA comprises 245 motoring and motor sport clubs across 143 countries. They all wield power because under the FIA statutes only one motor sport club, known as an Autorité Sportive Nationale (ASN), in each country can vote at its annual general meeting. It means that small countries have the same say as far larger ones. Decisions put to the clubs include approval of the budget and the election of the FIA president with the next opportunity for change coming later this year when current incumbent Jean Todt’s term comes to an end.
In 2014 the FIA launched a Sport Grant Programme fuelled with the annual fees that it receives from F1. The FIA’s documents describe the grants as “a new source of funding for National Sporting Authorities” and state 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 by successfully applying for a grant in each of the past three years.
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 out but the maximum amount available for each grant is €50,000 so the SAC could have been granted as much as €150,000. This isn’t its only source of funding.
In 2014 state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that 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 where drivers deliberately slide cars around corners on a twisting track. 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, he 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.”
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. Indeed, the FIA documents explain the hoops that applicants have to jump through.
An FIA spokesperson said: “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.”