To most, Yas Marina is just another place name; a niche geographical location that is only known by those who study the map of the Earth extensively for their daily dose of trivia.
To the F1 community, however, it represents one of the most controversial race tracks ever to have existed on the formula one calendar. Yas Marina was a project undertaken by the UAE in 1997 to build a series of artificial islands to host all sorts of events and attractions. However, the archipelago was centred around one attraction, specifically, the Yas Marina racetrack.
Yas Marina is primarily used and known as a Formula One track. F1 represents the pinnacle of motorsport as twenty modern-day gladiators duel for the biggest prize on four wheels; the World Championship. F1 attracted a cumulative global TV audience of 1.55bn for the 2021 season. With such vibrant and voluminous support, it is no surprise that Formula One is one of the most lucrative sports worldwide, with a total annual revenue of over $2.6 billion. While the drivers and team get the glory, there is an unsung hero in the sport – the race tracks. These range from golden oldies like Silverstone and Monte Carlo to the new kids on the block (particularly those in the Middle East) including Abu Dhabi’s track – Yas Marina.
The Middle East is a cauldron of new track development; each jostling to be the best of the lot. These five new tracks have come from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Azerbaijan. However, what made them unpopular before a car even started there is that each has replaced iconic, fan-favourite ‘old money’ tracks, such as Hockenheim (Germany), Istanbul Park (Turkey), Adelaide (Australia), and Nürburgring (Germany). Each host government pays for the construction and ongoing upkeep of their national F1 track. Middle Eastern countries are much more willing and able than other countries such as Germany and Austria. This is exemplified by the ‘host fee’ paid to F1 simply for holding the rights to host the race. The sums involved for the Middle East are eye-watering as they show their capabilities for hosting from the offset. In Yas Marina’s case, the UAE pays $55 million annually in fees to F1.
However, the United Arab Emirates has come under scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers, 14,000 of whom worked to build the track alone, as well as for issues with LGBTQIA+. As a result, the reputation of the UAE was seldom positive, but as shown by prime examples such as the 2022 Qatar World Cup; before the event, there was massive backlash against FIFA for allowing Qatar to host it, but now it will go down in history as one of the best world cups of all time after that incredible final. As shown by Qatar, Sports have the potential to alter, or at least repair, the reputation a country may hold.
Yas Marina has been pointed at as a prime example of Sports Washing. This is predominantly due to the titanic building costs, which come to a total of $40 billion to create the entire artificial Island over 11 years. It contains the Yas Marina track, which cost around $1.3 billion to be made.
However, there is so much more than simply the F1 presence on those islands. Surrounding the track are many other attractions, some of which remain incredible feats of artificial architecture to this day. There is the world’s largest indoor theme park, the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, which posted $650 million in revenue in 2019, the largest outdoor music venue in the region, the Du Arena, and the first-ever hotel built over an F1 circuit, the Yas Island Hotel. In 2019 alone, the Island recorded 28 million visits.
This represents an economic opportunity on paper, a combination of entertainment for the fans, and a positive impact on a society who are forced to live next door and work in the track. The entertainment is indisputable; the track has a capacity for 60,000 people, including a grandstand of 45,000, with the average ticket price being around $1,000. The 2021 Abu Dhabi grand prix recorded a staggering viewership of 108.7 million viewers.
These present a slightly different perspective on the manmade archipelago as it is not simply about the F1 track; there is so much more than purely about putting on a racing show. There is an experience for all sorts of viewers all year round, adrenaline junkies at the Ferrari world theme park, festival lovers at the Du Arena, and record followers at the first-ever hotel built over an F1 circuit.
Sovereign Wealth Fund typically aims for an annualized risk-adjusted average return of around 15% across its portfolio. The state of Dubai invested a total of $40 billion in building the track and Yas Marina. Despite strong annual returns of $1.3 billion from a combination of the theme park and track recipients, this yielded an annual return of only 3%, missing their target return by a factor of 5. Suppose the implied return was closer to their target return. In that case, you could argue that Yas Marina has strong commercial return and diversification benefits away from the oil and gas sector (where the kingdom generates most of its current income). However, the gap between the realised and target returns is so significant that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Yas Marina is anything but a prime example of sports washing.