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. Bahrain authorities, F1 powers et al can say whatever they want, but their words rang hollow after seeing this on Joe Saward’s blog last month: “It is just a shame that the final doubts about the place were not swept away with invitations to the event for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the two major human rights organisations in the world. If they had come to the party and said that all was well, then no-one would have any worries.”

    Too bad those overdue for a karmic payback will not be the ones at risk.

  2. Thank you Keith for the courage to speak out. Here, Saward’s and Motorsport magazine are the only ones I’m aware of.

    For the picture worth a thousand words dept…
    http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/article7640709.ece/ALTERNATES/w940/cartoon20120413.jpg

  3. Rick said on 18th April 2012, 22:22

    So should F1 take political stability, human rights status, foreign policy and altruism into consideration for every country? By those standards, they sure as hell wouldn’t run in China and maybe not in the USA! I find it hard to believe that everyone gets their undies all bunched up about Arab Spring and Bahrain, but nobody says a damn thing about China and their treatment of the people of Tibet.

  4. GeordiePorker said on 18th April 2012, 22:51

    Keith,

    I am glad that you have had the courage to write what must have been a difficult article, and without wishing to sound as condescending as it probably does, I wish to congratulate you on your efforts to be factual. It is sad that you research has led to the impossibility of an unbiased view (not a criticism of you in any way – an expression of my disappointment that things are so bad that a well researched article arrives at such a clear conclusion).

    I find it difficult to ignore the political issues, or to accept that this it is appropriate for the FIA to claim that it is only a sporting organisation and cannot comment on political activity. However, to cancel the GP would have been the FIA clearly supporting the protestors – is this appropriate? The FIA, in my opinion, is stuck between a rock and a hard place; to make a decision would have been to state that the ruling family is in the wrong and to implicitly suggest that change of government is required. To make no decision can be claimed to be politically neutral (the FIA has not, in fact, supported the ruling family – they have merely stated that the GP will go ahead), however it would have been naive in the extreme for the FIA to fail to recognise that the ruling family was always going to take this ‘yes to F1′ and not use it for political gain.

    Sadly, the only appropriate course of action would have been for the ruling family to cancel the GP and they do not appear to have sufficient conscience to do so. I feel for all of those who have been mistreated as a result of a simple desire for fair treatment and will not be watching the GP.

  5. ozzy (@ozzy) said on 18th April 2012, 22:51

    Human Rights > F1.
    Every Day of the year. For those who think this is “political” I hope this happens in your country and then let me know what matters more to you. If you cannot identify your self as an ordinary citizen you have some serious horsepower up ur ***. Most of you privileged lot haven’t seen riots, let alone wars. What it is to put everything you have in line because you believe the “government” is wrong. There will come a time, when you would realize what it is not to be free, what freedom really means and then Formula 1 will not matter. Kids. It is almost futile to attempt an understanding on a website which is called “F1Fanatics” and let us not forget the “co.uk”. Let us not be political because “uk” has more to answer than it can speak, ever.

    • thejudg13 said on 18th April 2012, 23:11

      A frank and humbling thought. Thank you. I am embarrassed by the decadent and ignorent comment of some of my fellow UK citizens.

      Given the comfort of their armchairs and laptop internet access, there has been too much flippant comment on this debate.

      I am though encouraged that it appears around 3/4 of the comments dissaprove of the FIA’s decision to support the oppresive Bahraini regime.

  6. Klon (@klon) said on 19th April 2012, 0:01

    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.

    Does this just means the weekend itself or one, two days beyond the weekend? It would be too kind to let us know because I am getting out of here until Formula 1 racing is the major focus of this site again and not your conscience and political opinion, for both of which I have not even the slightest hint of interest left.

    I have refused to follow politics for a while now and you’re not getting me to start now, sorry.

    See you all on Monday.

    • thejudg13 said on 19th April 2012, 0:20

      A decandent response from someone who has most probably never seen a riot, true depravation (and I mean not people living on benefits in a country of plenty), state brutality or state murder. Carry on enjoying your bubble of F1 watching every couple of weeks in your well earned leisure time and count your lucky stars you were a winner in the birthplace lottery.

      Bahrain is a country of only 1.2m people, run by uber Billionaires – they spend the countires wealth on yacths and many other playboy toys costing $100’s of millions, there’s no welfare state to speak of and a minority of people (more than 100,000) living in nothing more than corrigated huts.

      I guess you holiday in Fuengarola and feel hard done to if you can’t get a full English for breakfast. Bloody foreigners eh?

  7. Novotny (@novotny) said on 19th April 2012, 0:20

    I admire your well considered piece Keith.

    Even barring the incredulous politics, it’s ridiculous that while France, and many other countries, have no GPs, this country with no history of motorsports and a population of only 1.3M gets a race (I’m Northern Irish, btw).

    The whole thing stinks and demeans my favourites sport. It’s embarrassing. I was watching a little F1 history this evening and it struck me that men like Cevert died trying to entertain us and yet Ecclestone sees fit to take the money from this country and ignore France’s legacy in the sport.

    All in all, I’m feeling a bit queasy in regard to F1 atm. I think Ecclestone must step aside, and someone like Jackie Stewart should be running things. Surely that would be popular?

  8. F1Yankee (@f1yankee) said on 19th April 2012, 0:27

    i think the teams are getting what they want out of this:

    1. absolved of responsibility, public wrath

    2. still collecting a paycheck

    3. satisfying their numerous and wealthy arab customers and investors.

  9. S. Blake said on 19th April 2012, 1:18

    I will be boycotting it ! The race will only increase the crackdown on genuine protesters. Please boycott it

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bring-Moral-Accountability-to-Formula-1-Boycott-Bahrain-Grand-Prix/188401241200832

  10. bearforce1 (@bearforce1) said on 19th April 2012, 4:44

    Hi Keith. Brave article.

    Mclaren. Please please please tell us your opinion on Mclaren being 50% owned by The Bahraini royals.

    The hypocrisy is sad.

    How can you want the race cancelled because the owners of the race are evil. Yet you never make mention of Mclaren owned by the same evil people.

    This in my opinion has brought you low. You are entitled to your opinion but I expected more from you than deliberately hiding the Mclaren Bahraini ownership. You are normally balanced and support your arguments. The only thing I can think of here is that you are frightened of repercussions from Mclaren. Iif this is the case I have sympathy for you cause this is your income.

  11. budchekov (@budchekov) said on 19th April 2012, 5:18

    Amen Keith, well said.
    I fear for the teams, surely if anything goes wrong Bernie’s a goner?

  12. Anti-RBR (@matt2208) said on 19th April 2012, 5:25

    Im Loving this whole Bahrain mess. look what 2 Different Sides Of the media can do lol. Anyone against the race should go watch MASTER BERNIE’S Interview on youtube, the one The Great ”journalist” Jake humphrey does. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th_TYaKveqY Please watch dont let the hate for bernie get in the way. Bernie is on the money on this one.

  13. US_Peter (@us_peter) said on 19th April 2012, 7:13

    Thank you Keith. A well written and well reasoned article. Unfortunately I doubt it will do much to convince even some of your own readers who seem to think racing in Bahrain is just fine. Indeed it seems to have caused some emotional meltdown, but I guess that’s to be expected with a hot button topic like this.

  14. Jean said on 19th April 2012, 8:45

    Never mind what is happening , we are living in the last days , for sure (it is foretold in The Word that those with wealth and power will have more and more while they WANT for even more !) , so I can’t judge matters and say it is either right or wrong for F1 to race in Bahrain amidst of what is happening . So basically it is all insignificant anyway , the things of “man” (including women) will soon fade away………… one of my last worldly “attachments” is F1 , but becoming less and less.

  15. matt said on 19th April 2012, 8:49

    I think on top of the issue of autocracy vs democracy and the consequent struggle for reform / human rights violations in suppressing that struggle. I also find it upsetting that the only reason a country like Bahrain is in a position to host an F1 race is not due to a long historical association with motorsport or an emergence as a developed country keen to make an impact on the national stage, it’s because a century ago someone discovered oil reserves beneath the desert and American and European companies pay the tribal rulers of this land for the rights to access that oil. I personally find it sad that I have to sit through a 2 hour borefest in a sandbox rather than watching a race from a classic european track or an exciting newly emerging track purely because some sheik and his family can show off how much money they have by paying Bernies exhorbitant race hosting fees. The sooner these feudal autocrats run out of oil the better then Bernie can chase after some Russian billionaires instead. Sad thing is it paints F1 out to be a conscienceless greedy sport with no concern for it’s own history or moral values.

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