I wasn’t, if I’m honest, hugely keen on going to Saudi Arabia. Something to do with the old social conscience. I was also a touch cynical at the prospect of a bunch of people well renowned as being entirely self-serving looking to change the world. Some of my better friends are or have been professional drivers and I know they’re not famous for being accommodating when it comes to anything other than earning themselves a second per kilometer on their rivals.
But it was the juxtaposition of going to Saudi to ‘race without a trace’ and start saving the world that really got me. You know, Saudi, the world’s second biggest oil producer…
And then there was the gender equality argument. You know, Saudi, the nation that gave women the vote a decade ago and have just about started allowing them to drive, and where being transgender is a criminal act. Mixed messages abound – not least in the V8 gas-guzzling GMCs that took us to the beach being destroyed by global warming.
Putting these points to Agag was not easy. He’s a master politician who’s dealt – and deals – with far, far more complicated questions than the ones I could pose.
I gave it a shot.
“This country is changing,” he said. “Three years ago women couldn’t drive here. We need to have this change. The first ever event where men and women could be together in the same event was Formula E. If that is not helping… when things are going in the right direction you have to support them. Of course, nowhere is perfect, but if you want to only race in a perfect place you have to race in the Vatican.”
He was similarly forthright when the chat moved forward to sportswashing.
“I’ve been getting it [the accusations] since the beginning,” he added. “I don’t get into politics. All of you come from countries that haven’t imposed sanctions on this country. Talk to your governments, not to me. I wouldn’t go to a country with sanctions. Maybe North Korea… me, I abide by the law and I don’t get into politics.”
This from Agag, who was active in and best known for his decades spent in politics.
“I let others make the rules. Is it legal here? Yes. How about Iran? There are sanctions [there], so I don’t go there. I’m just doing races.”
But is Saudi paying for its five-year deal with Extreme E?
“We don’t comment on that.”
Agag’s deflect and defend response was the obvious play. So it took Professor Richard Washington, a desertification-focused academic from Oxford to generate some genuine context and consideration of the wider point.
Asked about his presence in Saudi, Washington said: “I expect I’ll get some flak. Someone might have taken photos of me getting in a high-emission car, but the alternative is to stay at home and mow the lawn with a scythe.
“There is a cost to the evolution process. There are small increments to be made. To make an omelette you do need to break eggs, and we do break eggs. And we make omelettes too.
“Why Saudi? Well, I guess it’s resourced. And it’s resourced by the profits of fuel sales that have no atmospheric tax on them. So what do we do next? We can say to Saudi you can keep all that money that we should have taxed and didn’t, or we can work together and use some of that resource to move things forward. Some of my colleagues say don’t get involved in greenwashing and so on and I say they have the resource and that resource needs to be ploughed back. Let’s do it.”
Greenwashing is the act of presenting an image of concern about the environment while actively engaging in large-scale acitivities detrimental to its preservation, often used by companies to claim their products are more ‘green’ than they actually are.
“The countries that have been damaged by climate change and the people who have suffered… we’ve done nothing and that’s also a violation of human rights. We can leave them to it or we can try and roll up our sleeves and do something.”
One thing was very clear, with XE’s St Helena ship and the Red Sea at our collective back, nobody gave the turtles and the ever-expanding desert a second thought. We were all about the racing.
XE made a very, very strong start last week. But there remains a balance to strike in more than one direction. It needs to decide whether, above everything, it’s a sporting contest. Or is it about the entertainment. There’s room for both, but not perhaps as much room as some might think.
And then there’s the environmental side. I’m with Williams (the prof, not the battery supplier) on that one. It’s better to be out there doing something than sitting at home wringing our hands. To be racing in a desert, running on electricity generated out of the most abundant chemical substance in the universe was something special.
The road ahead is long. But it’s very definitely electric.