The Bahrain Grand Prix: A matter of conscience


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. Sangeen Khan said on 18th April 2012, 18:10

    So a country which attacks another country under the false pretext of WMDs resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent men,women and children can have two races and not be pointed at regarding the terrible human rights atrocities at abu graib too.

    • thejudg13 said on 19th April 2012, 0:58

      Ask the 20,000 kurdish families who had their loved ones murdered whether they want Saddam back

  2. spacák (@spacak) said on 18th April 2012, 18:21

    Well argued self opinion and approach. Every oppressed individual or group is grateful for any kind of expressed support. Even here out of mainstrem media it has its worth.

  3. verstappen (@verstappen) said on 18th April 2012, 18:32

    UniF1cation is the argument making everything else obsolete. But, and I provided a link earlier, last year Ecclestone waived the fee. The Bahrainy chose to still pay it, but Bernie waived the fee.
    My 5 cts are that Bernie wants FIA / Todt to look bad and take the flak. For him it’s about the game and money’s just part of it.
    As I am, a modern European father, I’m already consuming my *** off, in things made by underpaid workers, or even slaves. So I Will watch and let myself be entertained. In a few years, there’ll be a movie about it, which we all Will watch, just like all Vietnam movies. Entertainment…

  4. F1ll (@f1ll) said on 18th April 2012, 18:33

    Hi, long time lurker, first time poster. Just felt i needed to throw in on this one.

    The FIA, F1 as a sport, Bernie, the teams and everyone else involved with the race are really caught in a difficult position. They are not a political organisation yet everyone including the media are treating them and their stance on the race as if they are. Calling off the race won’t solve any problems, but neither will unnecessarily over-involving themselves.

    As yet, there has been no further extension of F1 into Bahrain beyond this race, i haven’t heard any renewal talk, and neither have they retracted from it. This is exactly the stance they should take: neutral. By no means should the actions of the Bahraini authorities be advocated, but neither should the actions of the protesters. You may tell me the vast majority of the protestors are peaceful and perfectly likeable, and i’m 100% sure you’re right. Likewise the vast majority of Bahraini laws aren’t breaking human rights and withholding freedom; unfortunately the extremes are often the most obvious representatives, or at least most associated in the news, with a movement.

    In a continuation of the logic used to associate the FIA and Bernie with the current regime, surely pulling out of Bahrain would associate them with violent molotov-throwing dissidents, would it not? Is this any better? Will any new government be better than the current? We can’t say for sure, but we can find out a little from looking at the results elsewhere in the Arab Spring.

    By no means should we encourage the Bahraini governments current tactics, but equally by no means should we encourage the protesters tactics. Both are currently reliant on fear and terrorism.

    And key to all of this is that is has nothing to do with F1, and whether or not the race goes ahead bears no significance to the movement, or to the lives of the oppressing or oppressed Bahraini people. Your moral standing has no bearing on the situation, and neither does F1, so we should not let our moral bearings interfere with F1.

    However, when safety is a concern, as it may well be, pulling out is the only sensible option. So i too am questioning whether Bernie and the FIA have in fact revealed that money talks louder than sense.

  5. Swordsman_uk (@swordsman_uk) said on 18th April 2012, 19:27

    A good article on a complex subject Keith, well done.
    The FIA’s and Ecclestone’s decision to go ahead with the race was based purely on greed (as usual) but you’re right, if the race is going to go ahead then this should give everyone a platform to condemn the FIA, Bernie and especially the Bahraini regime.
    I just hope that we have a safe weekend so that come Monday morning, we are still debating if it was right to go there rather than discussing a tradegy.

  6. cito said on 18th April 2012, 19:31

    Morally, its a non-issue. The safety is the only issue with this one, and I hope no one gets hurt. Its not OK to go around the globe and push some liberal western idea of democracy and human rights upon other nations and kingdoms. Its their business. When you go down that slope and you want to be consistent you ought to advocate for military intervention in that country to “free” those people. I can already see in a couple of years. UUU poor gays can’t marry in wherever, we must boycott F1 race there, uuuu.

    • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 19:44

      I’m sure Jenson Button or whoever wins will be delighted to receive the trophy from the person,or his son, brother or cousin who ordered 1000’s arrested, brutalised and killed.

      • cito said on 18th April 2012, 20:13

        We should send military down there to free the people and arrest the government!

      • bearforce1 (@bearforce1) said on 19th April 2012, 4:33

        Oh booo hoo hoo. Get any more sensational.

        The authorities would have responded with the appropriate reasonable force needed. This is also supported on this forum by people who are Bahraini and also people who have lived or travelled there. This is to say that the protesters are not peaceful activists.

        Keith even acknowledges these people but says he is entitles to his own opinion. For me it just seems a strange way to weight the evidence in ones mind.

    • Novotny (@novotny) said on 19th April 2012, 0:25

      Well, we’re up to 116,000 civilian deaths since we in the west brought them freedom; I’m not sure anyone in the country appreciates that.

      • Novotny (@novotny) said on 19th April 2012, 0:26

        sorry, meant as a reply to thejudg13

        • Thejudge13 said on 19th April 2012, 9:38

          Great arguement for leaving all tin pot dictators and genocidal murders in charge. Why? The masses are too uncivilised to govern themselves? Better keep them repressed for their own good.

          I didn’t realise God/Allah was part of this discussion

  7. At first I was against the race being held as I felt this was the best way to take a stand against such human rights abuses. However, I have changed my position and believe the race should be held for the simple reason that it shines the international spotlight on the situation. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on there until this F1 controversy blew up. I think holding the race, although leaving a bad taste in my mouth, may be the best way to make a difference in the situation.

  8. Hand Ringers! said on 18th April 2012, 19:35

    I’m sorry another fairly weak justification for why Bahrain is bad, but going to China is okay (as if anything in that (one party) state is not state sanctioned, anyone high in business, and sports is still going to be party connected), F1 has been whoring itself forever and it’s GPs as a “showcase” for a country, you only have to look at the TV pre race build ups and inserts, they look like a tourist holiday programme, “look how thoroughly modern outward looking we are here (in Turkey, India, China, Malaysia, Texas,) and different but like you in so many ways, like Britain, Germany, etc, etc, look we drive your cars,” so I hardly think the chinese government would allow the Chinese GP to go ahead, if the broadcasters were doing spots about Human Rights, Tibet and democracy movements, the Chinese GP has the Chinese state, directly or indirectly all over it, whether funded from the tourist board or local business. I’m afraid this part time conscience/hypocrisy stinks, and while were at it US 5th fleet, thats to keep the oil flowing, so you (we) don’t go riot over petrol shortages and high prices, it is based in Bahrain, you won’t care about human rights a long way away, when you’re screaming over petrol pumps, and about your poverty back home due to high oil prices, you’ll just demand your government gets it. And it begs the question why are you not calling for a boycott of the US GPs, the US, indeed it’s UK stooge, if you are walking the talk, what about predator strikes killing hundreds & thousands in afghan, Iraq, Pakistan, without due process. Indeed watching BBC2s Modern Spies documentary, this week the US had killed it’s own citizen by drone strike, fundamentally depriving him of his 5th Amendment Rights to the US constitution, let’s not get started on rendition, and the status of detainees in Gitmo. Or why not Malaysia which has some dubious practices, upset about waterboarding, what about their caning? We would find abhorrent in the West, or Japan’s whale hunting, or have a read of the Human Rights in Brazil wiki, or India…

    My point is if you’re taking to get on your high moral horse, either apply it across the board, walk the walk, all the time, and be prepared to pay for your principles, not just when it costs you nothing.

    As to this article, and I wouldn’t set my moral compass by James Hunt, a drug taking, serial adulterer (oh and my first motor racing hero, which he can be because I don’t expect him (or my other heroes to saints, indeed I expect them to as full of moral compromises and ambiguity and contradictions as the next man or woman), and to the point, yes may have lambasted SA in a commentary, but I don’t recall him refusing to race there during his driving career. What he only found out about apartheid post 79?

    At least there is no doubt why Bernie is there. Money.

    Personally, I just wish these so called motor sport journalists who have rationalised, “its terrible, but I’m going”, “journalists”, I’ll be investigating the other side of the story (between the airport hotel and the press room), and who don’t deserve to use the same title as Marie what’s her face who died in Syria, just kept quiet, or at a push admitted they know their access (livelihood) is more important to them, and want both their passes and contracts renewed (food on the table), and put that ahead of their morals. (at least it would be honest). Or said I thought western liberalism was at the point where we’ve stopped imposing western (imperialist) values (like democracy) on other cultures and parts of the world, although as much as you handringing liberals with a politics degree, want to see it flourish, you won’t want another hard line sharia islamic state, fertile ground terror, so it’s only the kind of democracy we (in the west) like, okay, so the fleet can be based there, and oil keeps coming, fairly cheaply.

    Rather than trying to come with selective and elaborate justification for their lack of moral integrity, which is only exists so long as it costs them nothing. I’m assuming this blogger doesn’t need F1 paddock pass, risking his continued livelihood. And much like me from the comfort of my UK sofa, & my own moral ambiguity, and daily compromises will indeed sky+ the Bahrain GP, thankful to God (should he exist, or an accident of birth, if he does not) that I was born in Great Britain, which for all it’s imperialist past, that the handwringers tell me I must be ashamed of, but yet still enjoy from under it’s fading umbrella, like me, it’s last vestiges of privilege – relative safety, wealth, freedom & democracy without getting on a part time fair-weather, bed wetting, moral high horse.

    It was so much easier when F1 was the worldwide advertiser for nicotine delivery systems, oh hang on…

  9. dysthanasiac (@) said on 18th April 2012, 19:46

    “You can either stand with them, or with those seeking to make money out of their misery.”

    I don’t know whether to be amused by the naivete betrayed by this statement or offended by its rank hypocrisy. Either way, I think it’s clear that F1 journalism is way out of its league when it turns to politics.

    Much like this website, which, despite the professed stance of its owner, will remain online and collecting ad revenues throughout the Bahrain Grand Prix, I guess I stand with those seeking to make money off of the misery of others. I’m not going to stop buying the gasoline that makes up 60% of Bahrain’s export market; I’m not going to stop watching F1 and the teams that will inevitably accept funds from Bahrain’s race fee; and I don’t think McLaren, which is 50% owned by the Kingdom of Bahrain, should be banned from motorsport, nor do I think it’s incumbent upon Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and other McLaren employees to return 50% of their pay.

    Actually, I think I’ve just decided to be offended by the hypocrisy.

    I didn’t like it very much at all when my former president coerced support for the so-called “war on terror” by saying to the world, “You’re either with us or against us.” Seeing the same kindergarten logic applied here is no less idiotic.

  10. Cito said on 18th April 2012, 20:42

    I just hope anonymous won’t come and take all the streams down because of their high moral stands.

  11. Sarah Savage (@ladymuck) said on 18th April 2012, 21:02

    Very well written article, sums up my thoughts perfectly

  12. Tone720 said on 18th April 2012, 21:09

    My main concerns are not where FIA/Ecclestone support lies, because both those parties go wherever the money is (one, just more obviously so than the other), and I wouldn’t give a flying toss if they lose money.

    My concerns lie with the safety of the F1 paddock and ALL associated personnel and visiting fans. It seems to me with the current violent situation that there is FAR more cause to cancel the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix than the 2011 one, as there have already been reports of personnel and media getting caught up (I could have predicted this weeks ago, so this is no surprise).
    Even if you ignore renegade so-called reporters who have actually travelled TO the violent areas to then report on the violence as if the pit buildings had already been levelled to the ground, there are reports flying around, admittedly not ALL corroborated, of violence closing in on Sakhir and those trying to travel to it being caught up near danger zones, even at their hotels. There is even photographic evidence of protests being directly against F1 being there, and burning of advertising billboards for the race. For my money, you can put all the Police etc that you like in their way, but that will not guarantee the safety of those travelling to the race for whatever reason, or staying nearby.

    Already there have been incidents that basically confirm my fears for the safety of F1 people in Bahrain, I hope my fears are not worsened over the weekend.

  13. Fixy (@fixy) said on 18th April 2012, 21:13

    There have been constant claims the race should be abandoned on safety concerns; however, the situation isn’t like in other Middle Eastern countries, where missiles fly across the sky and there are attacks aimed at killing people. In Bahrain it’s the civils that are protesting, and despite how much they can put efforts in their protests, they won’t get too dangerous. Not if they continue in aiming their protests at expressing their disappointment with the government.
    The Al Khalifas aren’t stupid enough to attack the Bahrainis if they do nothing – they’d get loads of bad publicity, and they wanted the GP, so they’ll definitely be wary of the risks. If the civils attack, then I expect the Government to respond – but, still, not as hard as it did when worldwide media weren’t present in such quantities.
    Therefore, in a way, the only real safety threat during the weekend (and the following one, as GP2 have two races there) will be the civils. If they are, as they say, peaceful, they won’t put others’ lifes at risk.

    Saying the race should be cancelled on political matters is another thing. However the FIA’s article which states that “the FIA shall refrain from manifesting political discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect” clearly forbids that. I doubt any of the people involved in F1, including Ecclestone and Todt, approve of the way the Al Khalifas are reigning the country – but that isn’t accepted as an excuse for leaving the country.

    I genuinely hope everyone uses good sense and that nothing dangerous happens, not only during the motorsport events of this and next week, but from now on. The Bahrainis are legitimately asking for their rights, and I don’t definitely mean to say that Bahrainis should put their own lives at risk, once F1 personnel has left the country. However, I trust them when they say they’re peaceful, and they won’t, in the majority of the cases, attempt attacks to F1 staff.

    • Tone720 said on 18th April 2012, 21:18

      but the problem with that statement is that quite clearly, at least a portion of the protesting is being aimed directly at F1 being there, not JUST at the Government (who from what I can see are engaging in violence themselves, just because they’re not carpet bombing or attacking with missiles right now doesn’t mean they’re not also being violent).

  14. rsp123 (@rsp123) said on 18th April 2012, 21:20

    Superb piece Keith. Spot on.

  15. Maciek (@maciek) said on 18th April 2012, 21:29

    Difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said… kudos to Keith for laying out his considered view which, whether you agree with it or not, is much more than can be said for too many of the people who for some reason find it infuriating that someone wants to have principles.

    Random thoughts are:
    Comparison with China is not easy to cut through. On the one hand, F1 probably shouldn’t be there, on the other if F1 was going there during the Tienanmen Square events, I sure would know that it shouldn’t be there. I’ve never heard of any Chinese oppositionist criticising the GP, which is most certainly not the case in Bahrain.

    The slippery slope argument is really… slippery. I mean it,s a slippery slope to what? Saying that F1 should have some sort of conscience? Heaven forbid!

    If sport should be always apolitical, here’s two questions – why? and if sport shouldn’t be used for political purposes why is it ok that it’s shamelessly used for corporate purposes?

    And, to boot, the word ‘political’ has been absolutely abused in this debate. Criticising someone who holds political power because you want to get something out of it is politics. Criticising someone who holds political power because you find their morality suspect is ethics. There’s a difference. Like the one between bias and opinion, which also many people just don’t seem to recognise.

    Having opinions that ‘don’t follow what the mainstream media say’ does not automatically make you a rebel privy to truths no one else is smart enough to grasp.

    Fingers crossed nothing horrible will happen this weekend, to anyone.

    Ummm.. oh yeah and Bernie Ecclestone is a total tool.

    • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 22:24

      One would hope corporate sponsers don’t order the arrest of 1000’s of citizens and their subsequent brutalisation and in some cases death.

      Hell, ethical shoppers have grown by a factor of 10 in the UK in the past 8 years according to a survey by the retailers association. So the corporate world is having to modify behaviour.

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