The Bahrain Grand Prix: A matter of conscience

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Bahrain International Circuit, 2011The protesters of Bahrain have taken a stand against a cruel regime. You can either stand with them, or with those seeking to make money out of their misery.

The violent past

In February 2011 many Bahrainis, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, began a series of protests calling for democractic reforms in the country, which is ruled by a hereditary monarchy.

The peaceful protests were violently suppressed by the police, and several protesters were killed. As the situation deteriorated, the Bahrain Grand Prix scheduled for the following month was postponed. Shortly afterwards, the government declared a state of emergency, and brought in troops from overseas.

Thousands were arrested, and a commission of inquiry the following November determined many had been jailed “to punish those in the opposition and to deter political opposition”. The same report found widespread use of torture, and several deaths attributed to torture.

One such victim was Abdulkarim Ali Ahmed Fakhrawi, a founder of the Ali Wasat newspaper. After police surrounded the home of his relatives in Karbabad on April 2nd, Farkrawi presented himself at a police station.

Witnesses in the prison he was taken to reported hearing hearing him screaming in between blows. Then the screaming stopped, and a voice was heard saying “you killed him”. His body was returned to his family, who were told they would “end up like him” if they took photographs of it to prove he had been tortured. They did anyway (warning: graphic image).

The state of emergency was lifted on June 1st, two days before the FIA World Motor Sport Council met and restored the race to the calendar. One week later, the race organisers finally admitted it could not got ahead.

The stormy present

In the intervening months, little progress has been made. “The Bahraini authorities have been vociferous about their intention to introduce reforms and learn lessons from events in February and March 2011,” said a report issued yesterday by Amnesty International.

However, it added: “Reforms have been piecemeal, perhaps aiming to appease Bahrain?s international partners, and have failed to provide real accountability and justice for the victims. Human rights violations are continuing unabated. The government is refusing to release scores of prisoners who are incarcerated because they called for meaningful political reforms.”

Many in the country say the same. “There is still torture, still discrimination,” said one protester. “Everything we fought for on February 14th last year. It?s still just the same.”

The ongoing strife in the country has not prevented the FIA from trying to hold a race there this weekend. F1 team members and media began arriving in the country this week.

The government is clearly going to great lengths to keep areas F1 personnel normally visit quiet and ensure the continuing protests happen away from the track. Dozens of police vehicles line the road from Manama to the Bahrain International Circuit.

The continuing imprisonment of thousands of Bahrainis will make their task easier. This is a relatively small nation of 1.2 million inhabitants, more than half of which are expatriates. Even so, the regime has recently arrested another 60 protest leaders.

Despite this, the protests continue. Some are peaceful, but following the government’s violent response to peaceful demonstrations last year some protesters have thrown molotov cocktails.

There are threats of larger protests to come, and a growing sense that their anger is being directed at the race as well as the ruling Al Khalifa family.

The FIA gives political support to Bahrain

FIA president Jean Todt kept a low profile as the Bahrain row escalated. But German channel RTL managed to persuade him to speak on the matter last weekend.

Todt toed the FIA’s usual PR line: “There has been some controversy about it, but the FIA is a sports organisation,” he said. “We are only interested in sport – not politics.”

This is affirmed in the first article of the FIA statutes: “The FIA shall refrain from manifesting political discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect.”

However the advertising campaign for the Bahrain Grand Prix – “UniF1ed – one nation in celebration” – makes a mockery of the FIA’s claim of political neutrality. The race is being promoted as a salve for the social divisions that were exposed in the country last year.

The political value of the FIA granting the country a place on the world championship was highlighted by Bahrain International Circuit chief executive Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa when the slogan was launched in February, saying: “We in Bahrain should feel extremely privileged to be part of an exclusive club of only a handful of countries who can say that they are a host of a Grand Prix and are a part of the FIA Formula One world championship.”

In local reports in the country F1 drivers are being used – most likely without their blessing – to endorse the race’s political message.

Money and morality

Commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone has used similar rhetoric to Todt. He insisted that F1 does not concern itself with politics and does not make decision on moral grounds.

However that has not stopped him claiming the exact opposite when it has suited his needs. In December he claimed, “we pulled out of South Africa years ago [in 1985] because of apartheid”.

It’s hard to find much evidence this was the case besides Ecclestone’s selective re-telling of history.

Rather, pressure from television companies who refused to air further races in the country, a boycott by some teams and sponsors during the 1985 race, and the refusal of workers in Australia to handle “tainted” cargo from the Grand Prix, led to the race being dropped from the 1986 schedule.

This serves as a reminder to treat Ecclestone’s words with caution. Recall that last year the FIA revealed he’d attempted an 11th-hour reinstatement of the Grand Prix on the day after he’d said the race was “not on”.

Ecclestone’s overriding concern in this matter is ensuring F1 makes its money from Bahrain. That will happen if the race goes ahead or, as was the case last year, the Al Khalifas call it off.

However while the race brought in around ??25m ($40m) last year in hosting fees, an estimated ??59.7m ($95.3m) was lost in potential advertising revenue.

The China argument

Some have claimed that as long as F1 races in other countries with poor human rights records, such as China, then it must also race in Bahrain.

This argument is flawed in several ways. Taking a broad view, it is a mandate for F1 to go racing in – and lend credibility to – any regime, no matter how oppressive. Make way for the Iranian Grand Prix, or perhaps a race through the streets of Pyongyang.

The Chinese Grand Prix is of negligible importance to the government of China, and F1 refusing to race there would make no difference to its people. The same is not true in Bahrain.

The ruling royal family who own the circuit are the same people who stand to profit from the race happening and who have crushed demands for reform over the past 14 months.

Furthermore, the timing of several key events in relation to the activities of the FIA remains suspicious and troubling. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a protester currently on hunger strike in a Bahrain prison who has attracted considerable media attention, has been told he can appeal against his life sentence on April 23rd – the day after the race.

A matter of conscience

The protesters of Bahrain have taken a stand against a cruel regime which denies them basic rights and has ruthlessly suppressed their just pleas for reform.

You can either stand with them, or with those seeking to make money out of their misery. Those who go along quietly with what is happening, or chime in with another naive chorus of “sport should not be political”, are giving tacit endorsement to F1’s support for Bahraini oppression.

The government calls the protesters “terrorists” because the word resonates with those abroad who are only paying passing attention to what is going on. The protests began peacefully and many of them still are. But the use of violent and excessive force by the government has in some cases provoked a response in kind.

The Grand Prix is being used as a political tool by the Bahraini government. Those who oppose the race should have no compunction about challenging those who support it. This is what social media is for.

The situation brings to mind F1’s repeated visits to South Africa in the seventies and eighties. During one of those races James Hunt, while commentating for the BBC, vehemently criticised the regime and F1’s presence in the country.

I hope some of his successors in F1 broadcasting today have the conviction and the courage to do the same. Already some broadcasters including Sky Germany, Japan’s Fuji TV and Finland’s MTV3 have said they will not send people to the race.

F1 Fanatic’s Bahrain Grand Prix coverage

One response to the situation could be to ignore the race entirely. Several people have already told me they will not be watching the race, and I respect that.

However, as Todt and Ecclestone have chosen to use F1 to give financial support and credibility to the Bahrain government, I have chosen to use this platform to condemn it. A message to that effect will feature prominently on the site throughout the weekend.

I will continue to listen to, research and read about both sides of this complex debate, give coverage to both in the daily round-ups (which have featured scores of pieces on Bahrain in recent weeks) and, I expect, in further articles as well.

And as always, I invite all F1 fans to share their point of view.

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353 comments on The Bahrain Grand Prix: A matter of conscience

  1. Preekel (@preekel) said on 18th April 2012, 15:16

    I say while McLaren have a good shot at winning, lets go racing!!

  2. f1andy83 said on 18th April 2012, 15:32

    Your China Argument is flawed. China just like Bahrain stands to benefit from both Money, and Reputation. Regardles of wheter is a direct association or not.

    • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 23:45

      Not true. China is not perfect but Bahrain is its own Tiananman square phase, and if F1 was suggesting racing in China at that time in Chinese history, there would have been a bigger outcry

  3. P King said on 18th April 2012, 15:33

    F1 reporters: Kevin Eason, of The Times; Tom Cary of the Telegraph; and Ian Parkes of PA reporting live of being in the middle of a demo in the City Centre right now:

    http://twitter.com/#!/easonF1
    “Kevin Eason ‏ @easonF1
    How much longer will police allow this #Bahrain protest go on? An hour now
    3:30 PM – 18 Apr 12 via Twitter for BlackBerry® · ”

    http://twitter.com/#!/tomcary_tel
    http://twitter.com/#!/ianparkesf1

  4. John Kilmartin said on 18th April 2012, 15:57

    I am not sure whether you intend to cover the race or just discuss the controversy surrounding the event.

    I do not see how you can watch or report on the race without being a monumental hypocrite so I hope you will not be doing so as I integrity is important, whichever side of the debate you feel drawn towards.

    • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 22:30

      So a reporter who believes a war is unjust would be hyprocritical should they report it?

      • John Kilmartin said on 19th April 2012, 12:13

        You clearly failed to comprehend my point. Your straw man argument is moot and irrelevant.

        • thejudge13 said on 19th April 2012, 17:06

          Your facile and pejorative point was clearly understood together with the mentality behind it.

  5. Kim Thomas said on 18th April 2012, 16:12

    I hope you will attend the race.
    It is important that you should be there to witness the real situation and talk to the people of Bahrain.
    You will then have first hand knowledge of the truth.
    Don’t be a wimp. Don’t be afraid. Be brave and come and see the peaceful 95% silent majority of Bahrain.

    • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 16:53

      Can we visit the jails and detention centres too please.

      I believe the population in 2010 was 1.2m. 60,000 (5%) vocal protesters seems relevant. Though international observers seem to think the dissenting % is much higher

    • Maciek (@maciek) said on 18th April 2012, 16:54

      It’s amazing that crackpot dictators always have their share of supporters who somehow come to cast them in opposition to ‘mainstream views’ that obviously can’t reach their level of insight and lucidity or grasp of the really real truly truthful truth of reality.

      There’s much to be said for improving the way media outlets approach news coverage in general, no quaetion – but assuming that whatever they say must be false is just plain lazy thinking. I would like to hear one, single, real, convincing, logical, rational argument for what the ‘mainstream media’ stand to gain from fabricating popular unrest in Bahrain and at least one example (bearing all the same qualities, please) of ‘non-mainstream’ media saying something different.

  6. slowhand (@slowhand) said on 18th April 2012, 16:16

    Keith – Thank you for an excellent review of a very troubling situation. Please give some consideration to standing for President of the FIA – the organization could us a person of your caliber and balanced perspective. I would back you all the way!

    • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 17:14

      Gets my vote

      And reclaim the commercial rights of F1 sold for a pittance – $1m a year to Ecclestone for 99 years. Then F1 wouldn’t need to harge such vast fees for Free to Air TV companies.

  7. Mack41 (@mack41) said on 18th April 2012, 16:22

    This is getting ridiculous. Regardless of whether you feel F1 should or should not be going to Bahrain it doesn’t matter; they are going and nothing any of us rants about to the contrary is going to amount to anything. What this F1 race has given the Bahraini people is the international medias attention again. Bahrain is letting in more media than it has in months and people are focusing on the situation in the country. There would be a fraction, if that, of the current international outcry and attention if F1 was not going. And whatever is said about the Bahraini government making it seem like everything is a-okay, well, the fact we already know they’re faking a shroud of peace shows how ineffective it is now doesn’t it.

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at in this opinion piece here Keith. It sounds as if you are condemning the race and those that do not mind it going there, yet are going to cover it this weekend. If you stick to what it seems your opinion piece is about then covering the actual race in any capacity would be hypocritical. I’m curious as to how this plays out on F1fanatic this week.

    • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 16:45

      Many war correspondents must be hyprocritical then too!

      • Mack41 (@mack41) said on 18th April 2012, 20:08

        I don’t think you understand what I’m getting at. Keith opens with this statement: “You can either stand with them, or with those seeking to make money out of their misery”. By covering the race itself, results and all that just related to the race, Keith stands to make money “out of their misery” from the page views resulting from such articles. Posting articles and stories from the political side is different, and in the case of war correspondents, they report the political nature with no ulterior motive for other events going on in the warzones. You don’t see war correspondents covering the local beauty pageant and earning money from sponsors and page views from that now do you? They stick to what they’re covering.

        Personally I hope Keith covers the race as his detailed and thorough coverage of Formula 1 is the reason I come to this site. But it does raise some hypocrisy in his statement and outright condemnation, “if you support F1 and stand to make money off of the race here you support the regime” so I’m interested in seeing if it was a little too emotional of a statement whose full meaning comes of rather stronger than intended or if Keith plans on not covering the race in Bahrain as in depth as we’ve come to expect and will instead post information regarding the situation in Bahrain and make it about the people and not the race.

        • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 22:01

          And I don’t think you understand how this site works. Keith will make no more money whether he wrote this article or something else. In fact he risks possibly alienating some traffic to his site by people who unreasonably object to his opinion and boycott F1 fanatic.

          Its clearly not an either or situation

          Knowing the quality of Keith’s work he’ll still cover the event with the same thouroughness and insight as usual. Whether the anchor’s at Auntie and Sky will risk upsetting people whose grace and favour they enjoy is a different question.

  8. montreal95 (@montreal95) said on 18th April 2012, 16:44

    Great article Keith! Nothing to add really, but to offer my appreciation

  9. David BR (@david-br) said on 18th April 2012, 17:04

    Brilliant article taking a well-thought out and strong ethical stance that doesn’t try to skip the problem with the unfounded argument that sport has to be ‘above’ politics. Congratulations Keith, I hope this receives the attention it deserves.

    • kimithechamp (@kimithechamp) said on 18th April 2012, 17:16

      What’s unfounded is this stance.

      • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 17:21

        Its an opinion and fairly well argued and substantiated

      • David BR (@david-br) said on 18th April 2012, 17:31

        How so? It’s clear that running the race is of benefit to the current (undemocratic) political regime. It is also being opposed by pro-democracy activists and opponents of the regime. So it’s spurious to argue Formula 1 shouldn’t become involved in Bahrain’s politics – it was from the day negotiations for the race started. This is without getting into a deeper argument as to why any large-scale economic investment of this kind has political implications (how money is being invested in the country in detriment to other areas, the political and legal implications of how people and companies like Ecclestone etc. operate globally, the kinds of investments made by Formula 1 companies like McLaren and the political deals these imply). Feel free to ignore the issues, many do, but ignorance doesn’t make them vanish. Even less solve them.

        • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 18:02

          Its the direct association of the royal family as promoters of the race that is problematic.

          The people who gave the order to arrest, brutalise and kill their own citizens will be stood on the grid, celebrated and given deference from the FIA.

  10. Leon said on 18th April 2012, 17:06

    Don’t you just love the superb moral compass of F1’s commercial rights holders
    CVC Capital Partners and their over-lovely mouthpiece Mr B C Ecclestone ?
    Where any financial vehicle that continues to pay off their massive debt burden
    is quite OK with them. Dead Children, Tortured Women, Slave Economies……all just
    fine and dandy to these wonderful guys, so long as the big bucks keep rolling in.
    So medieval barbarism as a political system is just fine, guys. Just keep coming to
    watch F1 and keep paying our crippling charges to do so.

    The stench of corruption and moral bankruptcy is overpowering.

  11. hakeem said on 18th April 2012, 17:10

    if we really do care why dont we boycott whole remaining series id would be sad for us F! fan, but for the best of all i think

  12. gwenouille (@gwenouille) said on 18th April 2012, 17:48

    Well… I have made my decision and won’t follow the GP on TV. Me not tuning in will reflect on the audience recorded by the channel. It’s the only thing i can do to show my caring for the situation.
    I will of course turn to this very site later and read results and analyses, but that’s all.

  13. katederby said on 18th April 2012, 17:58

    From the moment the “UniF1ed – one nation in celebration” slogan was revealed earlier this year is was obvious the race would be used for political leverage and that, along with the concern for team personnel, FOM employees and journalists etc meant I was against the race going ahead.
    Now I’m sure the drivers and in particular the three leading drivers and constructor’s representative on the podium will become part of a political show, when some official member of the regime presents the trophies.
    What I hope is that those four men listen to the anthems of the winning driver and team and then leave the podium ceremony.
    It’ll be a brave stance to take but would surely send a message to the regime and the rest of the watching world.

  14. kimithechamp (@kimithechamp) said on 18th April 2012, 18:09

    A more logical look at the situation not many will echo:

  15. Steve said on 18th April 2012, 18:10

    “You will be welcome here because you are guests in my country but you will be racing over blood this weekend.”

    Enough said.

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