Title sponsorships come in many shapes and sizes, but McLaren‘s newest partner for its Formula E and Extreme E programmes is a bit of an unusual one. Announced Monday, the Saudi “eco-city” of NEOM assumed naming rights for the British outfit’s electric racing divisions, dubbing them NEOM McLaren Formula E Team and NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team while both comprise NEOM McLaren Electric Racing.
“Our partnership with McLaren Racing complements NEOM’s commitment to driving sustainable solutions and tackling some of society’s most pressing challenges,” NEOM CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr stated. “The partnership will allow us to share our collective resources and experience to yield exciting results, not only for our own organisations, but also for the broader automotive and sports industries.
“NEOM is an economic engine for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and will be a hub for innovative businesses like McLaren Racing to conduct cross-industry research, incubate, collaborate and bring new technologies to the world.”
Located in the deserts of Tabuk Province, NEOM (a portmanteau of “Neo-” and Mustaqbal, Arbic for “future”) is a £406 billion venture spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with goals of completing the first phase of construction by 2025. It is the centrepiece of Saudi Vision 2030, a series of megaprojects to reduce the country’s oil dependence and develop its public sectors like tourism and infrastructure. NEOM intends to be a cosmopolitan, self-sufficient paradise of sorts with the implementation of futuristic yet environmentally friendly elements, such as energy being generated by renewable sources like solar and wind power. “The Line”, a planned 170-km linear city of one million residents a massive rail system in lieu of cars and streets. Food is to be grown locally through sustainable agricultural methods like vertical greenhouses, while artificial intelligence and robots provide services for the population.
Also planned is OXAGON, a seven-kilometre floating port city based off the desert coast on the Red Sea. Besides serving as NEOM’s logistics hub, it would establish a supply chain of imported and exported goods for the city. The OXAGON Research and Innovation Campus, an education and research center, will partner with McLaren to host the latter’s Accelerator programme which applies performance-based data to non-motorsport contexts. Select Saudi citizens can also take part in the NEOM Graduate Opportunities in Work (GrOW), a one-year initiative that lets them work with McLaren.
“This is an incredible way to kick off our entry into Formula E and to unify our electric racing series,” said McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown. “We are thrilled to introduce NEOM McLaren Electric Racing and to work with NEOM to nurture talent and drive innovation.
“Working with OXAGON’s innovative advanced and clean industries eco-system will allow us to make meaningful contributions through our bespoke Accelerator programme which exists to leverage performance-driven data and translate this into the culture and thinking of our partners.”
Of course, this utopian dream carries much reason for skepticism due to its overly ambitious nature, the disconnect between its green image and Saudi Arabia’s still booming oil industry, and most importantly the country’s long scrutinised human rights record and foreign relations like its greatly condemned intervention in the Yemeni Civil War. Saudi Arabia has drawn immense flack in recent years for “sportswashing” as investors hold stakes in major sporting clubs while their nation welcome series like Formula One, Extreme E, Formula E, and the Dakar Rally; Extreme E even held its 2022 season-opening Desert X Prix on a 6.9-km sandy circuit in NEOM.
The 2022 F1 Saudi Grand Prix and the previous year’s FE Diriyah ePrix were overshadowed by missile attacks near their respective street courses, with the former race occurring just two weeks after a government-led mass execution of eighty-one people. The prelude to the 2022 Dakar Rally saw racer Philippe Boutron suffer serious injuries when his truck exploded in what French authorities deemed a potential act of terrorism, caused by an improvised explosive device, in contrast to Saudi claims. The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, whose takeover of Newcastle United and formation of LIV Golf have drawn widescale criticism, also holds a £550 million equity in the McLaren Group.
Actions like the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—which resulted in NEOM’s lead architect Norman Foster distancing himself from the project but remaining involved with Saudi Vision 2030 via the Red Sea Project—and violently evicting the native Howeitat tribe to greenlight construction further do little to assuage international controversy. Migrant workers have also been reported to be living in abysmal conditions while developing the site. In 2020, American public relations firm Ruder Finn was hired to manage the situation by providing positive press on NEOM, and the agency released a statement commenting it “is a bold and audacious dream. It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it comes at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions.”
In a 2018 column, former TCF open-wheel writer William Brierty argued Formula E in Saudi Arabia is a “departure from FE’s forward-looking, conscientious ethos” as it competes in “a country in the midst of an identity crisis; a country wanting to present an outward-looking, investable platform to prospective Western businesses, but still very much influenced by a culture of deeply-conservative clerical Islam.”
Despite the state’s blood-stained record sheet, the Saudis and sports world have appeared to press on. The Diriyah ePrix is contracted to return for the 2022/23 Formula E Championship as part of a ten-year agreement, while the Dakar Rally remains in the country for a fourth straight year in 2023. Motoring has also seemingly been more embraced by the country in recent years as in addition to the aforementioned events, the country lifted its ban on women driving in 2018 and recently held the women-only Rally Jameel in March.
Even if one is critical of NEOM, they might at least find comfort in the fact that it is not the first time a city sponsored a sporting entity, let alone in racing: from 2014 to 2017, the NASCAR Xfinity Series‘ race in Kentucky Speedway was called the VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 (despite Myrtle Beach being in South Carolina) as a means to generate tourism for said city. Neither hold a candle to American college football’s Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl, where the village of Elk Grove, Illinois sponsored for two years a game over two thousand kilometres away in Nassau.
NEOM is the third prominent sponsor picked up by McLaren, with the largest being Google/Android which supports the team’s electric and Formula One arms; the Extreme E team also has support from the Intercontinental Exchange. While the vehicles retain their “Fluro Papaya” and “New Blue” colours from their original liveries, a black microchip pattern is prominently displayed on their sides with NEOM’s addition.
The NEOM McLaren Formula E Team will make its début in 2022/23 after taking Mercedes-EQ‘s slot on the grid. At the 2022 XE opener, the duo of Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour reached the final and placed fifth.