Start, Bahrain Grand Prix, 2010

F1’s Bahrain Grand Prix brinkmanship is all about money

CommentPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Start, Bahrain Grand Prix, 2010We’re ten day away from the start of practice for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

But has much changed for the better in the ten months since the FIA belatedly dropped its efforts to shoehorn the race into the back-end of last year’s calendar?

Following the government’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in February of last year, over 2,000 Bahrainis have been imprisoned, more than 1,800 of which are alleged to have been tortured, and 62 have died.

This, it must be remembered, has taken place in a comparatively small nation of some 1.2 million inhabitants, less than half of which are Bahraini citizens (the rest are expatriates).

The government commissioned an inquiry chaired by UN war crimes expert Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni. His damning 500-page assessment (PDF link) detailed the use of “unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage” by the security forces.

Bassiouni found a pattern of “torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse […] which in some cases was aimed at extracting confessions and statements by duress, while in other cases was intended for the purpose of retribution and punishment”.

While the Bahrain government has been quick to play up the scale of the investigation, critics say it has been slow to implement the report’s recommendations. Chief among which is Bassiouni himself, who said in January: “I think the public is going to come out in the end and say ‘You’re holding all of these investigations behind closed doors – this is a whitewash’.

“And I think that would be perfectly justified”.

While the government drags its feet protests have continued, albeit on a smaller scale which, given the numbers imprisoned and the heightened police presence, is hardly surprising.

Last month the European Parliament condemned the Bahrain government’s “ongoing” human rights violations including “the excessive use of tear gas, repression, acts of torture, unlawful detention and prosecution of peaceful protesters”.

“We’re all hoping the FIA calls it off”

The Bahraini government is telling anyone who will listen that the pro-democracy protesters are merely criminal rioters, possibly operating in league with factions in Iran – a dubious claim but one which resonates with some.

The FIA appears only too eager to believe everything it is told by the Bahrain government. This is hardly a surprise – last year they produced a flimsy document supporting a race in Bahrain just one week before the race organisers cancelled the Grand Prix.

Despite eventually scrubbing the 2011 F1 race from the calendar the FIA restored the event this year. On top of that it handed Bahrain a round of the World Endurance Championship, a pair of GP2 meetings (including the only non-F1-supporting round) and the final leg of the CIK-FIA U18 Karting World Championship.

F1 team principals have previously insisted they were satisfied to follow the FIA’s lead on Bahrain, despite the governing body having demonstrated a palpable lack of judgement on the matter last year.

Only yesterday did the teams begin to reveal their unease with the situation. One team principal told The Guardian: “We’re all hoping the FIA calls it off.

“From a purely legal point of view, in terms of insurance and government advice, we are clear to go. But what we find worrying is that there are issues happening every day.”

Hunger strike

The European Parliament has also called for “the immediate and unconditional release of all peaceful demonstrators, political activists, human rights defenders, doctors and paramedics, bloggers and journalists” including Bahrain Centre for Human Rights president Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

Al-Khawaja, who the European Parliament says is being held “for exercising… rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly or complying with their professional obligations”, has been on hunger strike for the last two months.

There are fears for his life – and concerns for what might follow if he were to die in the hands of his captors. Just a few hours ago news broke of a bomb injuring seven policeman in Manama.

Against all common sense, F1 is about to jump into this powder keg. And it is doing so for exactly the same reason it kept returning to South Africa in the seventies and eighties, long after other sports had turned their backs on the apartheid regime.

The value of the Bahrain Grand Prix

The reason, of course, is money.

Bahrain is one of the most valuable races to F1, both in terms of how much they pay to hold the race and the degree of exposure sponsors get from the race.

In turn, it is extremely valuable to the Bahrain economy, which has taken a battering in the last 12 months. On top of that is the race’s inestimable value to the Bahraini royal family of presenting the impression that life has returned to normal.

This explains why F1 is playing its dangerous game of brinkmanship. Last year the race remained on the calendar until the Bahrain race organisers themselves called it off. This allowed Formula One Group to keep the ??25m ($40m) paid by the Bahrainis for the race even though it wasn’t held.

A decision not to go through with next Sunday’s race may not be taken until the teams are preparing to leave Shanghai this weekend.

And even then, we can’t rule out the possibility of a repeat of last year’s shambles where the race was repeatedly postponed and moved into different slots.

Recall that at one point last year the FIA was giving serious consideration to moving the inaugural Indian Grand Prix to make way for a rescheduled Bahrain race, and you can appreciate just how keen all involved are to keep cashing those cheques.

Bahrain documentary

Al Jazeera’s “People and power: Bahrain” covers developments in the 12 months since last year’s demonstrations, and is well worth watching:

For more on developments in Bahrain in the last 24 hours, see today’s round-up.


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