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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Image ?? Drew Gibson/GP2

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

  1. scratt (@scratt) said on 19th April 2012, 9:07

    Great article. But if we are going to bring up China, and an imaginary Iran or PyongYang race, then we should also mention the US race and that parallel. Big business (which runs the US and is heavily involved in politics and the military there) stand to profit from that race greatly. So in that sense it has more of a parallel than China has – however small.

  2. rsp123 (@rsp123) said on 19th April 2012, 10:47

    The BBC has just reported that a Force India staff car has been caught up in a protest in which a fire bomb was thrown. The report points out that:

    Teams and drivers are known to have private misgivings about the wisdom of racing in Bahrain amid ongoing civil unrest, but none have so far publicly questioned the decision.

    Why this omerta? Because any dissent from the sport’s rulers’ views can be very costly. Look at Adam Parr. Besides, any team that decided not to attend a race that all the others were attending would face enormous costs and possibly lose their place on the grid.

    The bosses of F1 and the rulers of Bahrain seem to have more in common than you might think…

    • P King said on 19th April 2012, 13:05

      You said “Because any dissent from the sport’s rulers’ views can be very costly. Look at Adam Parr. ”

      What do you about Adam Parr’s departure then?

  3. Fantastic article Keith. I accept some of its opinion some accepted fact, and it’s for people to make up their own minds, so here’s a few research links of events/statements in the last 24 hours

    A statement from the Chief of Public Security: Ministry of the Interior.

    A Tweet from the same ministry declaring all protesting from today to be illegal – someone on this site commented the country was run by parliament. Really?
    Tweet today from Activist Dr Ala’s Shehabi

    In his Guardian interview John Yates insisted that protesters were not being abused by the police. If they were “that would be on YouTube”, he insisted.
    Pictures and Video of the Police response to keep the peace
    But Western Journalists have been at these events. This is what they say.!/easonF1!/ianparkesf1!/tomcary_tel

    The trial of 20 Medics, arrested for treating protesters:

    Looks a pretty peaceful backdrop for an F1 race?

    Even Yates of the Yard employed by the Bahraini ruling family now says they cannot guarantee F1 teams safety

    • And now we reports from the BBC that 4 Force India team members caught up in a firebomb incident in clashes between the Police and protesters. 1 of them has returned to the UK.

      • Bahrain International Circuit chairman Zayed R Alzayani says it’s “unfortunate” that Force India mechanics were caught up in a petrol bomb incident

        • P King said on 19th April 2012, 13:02

          “Force India mechanics were caught up in a petrol bomb incident ”
          BBC’s Andrew Benson uses a gutter press headline “Force India flee Bahrain petrol bombs”.
          Still, not as bad as Prince Charles and Camilla who were threatened with physical violence in their car last year, during the London Student Fees riots! :0

          • Paul Richardson (@dangermoose) said on 19th April 2012, 13:21

            So being caught in the middle of a petrol bomb attack – granted not aimed at them but still a physical attack by a crowd of protesters is somehow less frightening or severe them someone threatening violence? I would go with the threat everytime! Just because they were not hit by a petrol bomb doesn’t mean the danger was all around them and must have been very frightening. Were there petrol bombs and the scale of violence during the fee ‘riots’? Not even the same scale in my mind.

      • A second Force India member is now leaving

        Force India’s spokesman, Will Hings, told Associated Press today that one of them is leaving the country and heading back to Europe. Hings said another member of the team who was not in the vehicle is also leaving.

        “I won’t be giving any details of their positions or names … they were just people working for the team,” Hings said. “I can’t give you any more information other than that they’re returning home out of their free choice.”

    • Medicins sans Frontieres says it has been continually denied access to Bahrain to assist the injured who live in fear of attending Hospitals in case of reprisals

    • P King said on 19th April 2012, 13:15

      You say “Even Yates of the Yard employed by the Bahraini ruling family now says they cannot guarantee F1 teams safety”. He is stating the b******* obvious, innit? Nobody can guarantee your safety anywhere in the world, not even in Britain.

      Get real folks, there are agitators and dissidents in every country, and they will only be happy when they can take over a country to run it like dictators themselves.

      As for existence of democracy in Bahrain, read it up here
      It may not be what we have in Britain, but then Bahrain is not governed by Britain.

    • Elizabeth Dickinson, freelance journalist writing for World Affairs Journal (Established in 1837, World Affairs is a bimonthly international affairs journal). She warns the intrasigence of the Bahraini rulers is forcing the hands of the propesters who have until now believed the promise of change given to them.

      She shows how the Bahraini government has missed two recent opportunities for an exit from the political crisis. One was an opportunity for political dialogue, and the other an opportunity for reform following last year’s BICI report.

      “Both those opportunities, however, came to naught, and the result may deal a deathblow, ironically, to the most moderate supporters of Bahrain’s uprising,” Dickinson says.

      Opposition groups led by al-Wefaq continue to walk a fine line, organising pro-democracy protests but keeping open a door for dialogue with the ruling Sunni monarchy …

      Many youth on the street, however, have long ago lost faith in that option. Under the umbrella of an online group of activists calling themselves the February 14 Coalition, they are talking about other options. For months now, protests have chanted “Yasqut, Hamad” – down with the King.

      Now, Molotov cocktails are becoming increasingly popular. Some more extreme online groups allying with the February 14 Coalition have called for more direct attacks on security forces too …

      What this signals for the direction of Bahrain’s crisis seems clear: a further slide into escalation …

      Salman of al-Wefaq told me on April 5 that his group’s position has not changed. “To speak clearly, we are with a credible dialogue, a political solution … There is no precondition for [that] dialogue.”

      The question, increasingly, is to whom they will be speaking.

      • For those who are worried big corporations are getting away with it – and argue why bother with sovereign nations who abuse Human Rights – the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has published a report today on the responses from companies involved with this weeks F1 event.

        It says: “Forty-two companies failed to respond, and of the 17 responses received, nearly all completely failed to comment on the grave human rights concerns that they were asked to address.”

        “Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has become the world’s leading independent resource on the subject. Our website is updated hourly with news and reports about companies’ human rights impacts worldwide – positive and negative.

        We seek responses from companies to allegations of misconduct: ensuring that our coverage is balanced and encouraging firms to address concerns raised by civil society.

        The website covers the social and environmental impacts of over 5000 companies, operating in over 180 countries. Taking international human rights standards as its starting point, topics covered include discrimination, environment, poverty and development, labour, access to medicines, health and safety, security, trade.”

  4. sbl on tour (@sbl-on-tour) said on 19th April 2012, 11:08

    i,m not watching nor doing the predictions comptetion either, after this weekend master bernie will move onto something else, sometimes the F1 circus sickens me, this is one such moment

  5. Banburyhammer (@banburyhammer) said on 19th April 2012, 12:30

    Bahrain circuit chairman Zayed R Alzayani said: “They weren’t targeted. They just happened to be there.

  6. Dj xo2 (@dj-xo2) said on 19th April 2012, 12:56

    Great work Keith! Media is so controlled by the companies that own them, it’s hard to get a unbiased report of the facts, your pros and cons assessment keeps and gives the rest of us the pices of the puzzle to from our own conclusions. In the full gravity of the system; cheers

  7. rantingmrp (@rantingmrp) said on 19th April 2012, 13:33

    Well, now that a petrol bomb has been lobbed at a Force India personnel car, and given that the protests are likely to escalate tomorrow, shouldnt the race be postponed on steams’ safety grounds? Some people argue that the violence is in the city and away from the track itself, but the teams cannot sleep on the track, can they? They have to go into the city in the evening, where the protesters will be waiting.
    This race should not go ahead. And it might not make a difference, but I wont bother watching it if it goes ahead.

    • Maksutov (@maksutov) said on 19th April 2012, 14:02

      but the teams cannot sleep on the track, can they?

      I doubt it, nor should they. And need I remind, its not only about the teams, it is also about the fans and the general and international audience that will be watching. These people have to use the cities and the services within to get around, live, and enjoy their stay during the event.

    • P King said on 19th April 2012, 14:53

      ” Well, now that a petrol bomb has been lobbed at a Force India personnel car, … ”

      Well, the petrol bomb was thrown at the Police, not at Force India car. The protestors have expressly said that they have no intention to harm any F1 people; because they know that if they did, it would harm their cause immeasurably.
      As for the City, the City is and has always been safe. I know, because I visit about twice a month.
      The violence that happens almost every night is in the Shia villages, where they gather to attack Police Stations. See for yourself:

      • HewisLamilton said on 19th April 2012, 16:35

        Hopefully the petrol bomb knew it was supposed to be headed for the police and not for the hired car with the Force India personnel on board. How asinine. The bottom line is their safety was comprimised when they have been told all is safe.

  8. Foreign Office updates its travel advice to Bahrain today. And whilst there are no restrictions on travel there are weighty health warnings for consideration.

  9. thejudge13 said on 19th April 2012, 18:16

    The cracks begin to appear…

    “We shouldn’t have been put in this position,” Hulkenberg told BBC Sport.

    “It is obviously not right that that sort of stuff happens,” Hulkenberg said. “We are here to race. The F1 business is about entertainment and these sort of things should not really be happening to us.

    “Whether it is right or not I don’t really know. It’s difficult to say. I am not a politician, I am a formula 1 driver, but it should not really be happening should it?

    “It is not good that we have to worry about it: that is the way it is now and let’s see and hope that the rest of the weekend is good and calm.”

  10. F1 shouldn’t associate itself with torturing of innocent civilians caused by a horrific parliamentary regime. Only when basic human rights have been restored to the Bahrainian people should the race return to the calendar.
    But of course, F1 is a money sport, and if Bernie makes money he’ll be a happy man, so the race will go ahead

  11. Terry said on 20th April 2012, 2:23

    One thing that I cannot understand is if one chooses to boycott this race because it is morally wrong then should onenot boycott the rest of the season until such a point the FIA makes a decision to never race where there are oppressive regimes? That is similar to saying “I am mad you want to go to the movies with a killer this weekend but yeah sure lets hang out next weekend”. On May 11 while you happily enjoy the next round of races the people in Bahrain will still continue to suffer. I’ll probably get a lot flack for pointing that out but it is the uncomfortable truth. I for one am not going to be a hypocrite and grandstand about how I am against but I am conflicted about whether or not to watch.

  12. scratt (@scratt) said on 20th April 2012, 2:45

    I presume that the risk of debris, or something more serious being thrown on the track has crossed everyone’s minds, and may have been discussed here also (apologies if I missed that). But what if?

    Last week we were at the Chinese GP and they had a ban on glass bottles going into the track, for obvious reasons. However, there were still hawkers selling stuff over the fence, and many of our group managed to smuggle our customary bottles of Champagne in despite there being bag checks at all gates.

    I know this situation is quite different, but as has been mentioned already above, the protesters are realising more and more that the ruling elite are not going to listen or talk to them… It would be very tempting to me, if I was that desperate, to try and do something outrageous on race day – even if it cost me my life or liberty – to try and make a point.

    Are we only going to see empty stands? Or sparsely populated ones with the elite only in them? And are all of them going to be vetted? Even if that is the case do they really believe they can 100% guarantee that a rock or bottle will not be thrown into the path of a car travelling at speed….

  13. I can’t read 329 comments to see if this has already been said, but the problem is Bernie signed the agreement with this government knowing who they are and what they do. What does he gain by backing out now, saying “Oops!” on a global stage?
    The comparisons to China and Iran should not be dismissed as easily as orders of magnitude. Do we not think, if there had been a financially attractive offer made, he would take the circus to Tehran? Are those oppressed and killed in China less valuable than those in Bahrain? Would he schedule a GP in Egypt, now that it is essentially unsafe to be a Christian in that country?
    What should be relatively obvious is that these races – in a country with no racing history, but the resources to construct a GP circuit in a desert – are forged in relationships where revenue is only part of the picture. We don’t know what he (Bernie) is saying behind closed doors, but his only realistic option in public is to fulfill the current contract and delay renewal until some kind of human rights proviso is included. And then we’re back to China…

  14. JCRR said on 20th April 2012, 16:42

    I’ve had enough of all this BS. Those who really care about the political situation in a foreign country better move there and try and change things. The rest of us can enjoy Sunday sports because I really do not care if we have Olympics in China or CCCP or a race in Syria.
    PS :
    How many of you guys are voicing your opinions about the situation in Syria?

    • Syria isn’t breaking the FIA’s regulations (and, obviously, F1 isn’t there) so this would hardly be the forum to complain about Syria. Bahrain has, the FIA is there anyway, so here is the right place to complain about Bahrain. Even if you don’t care about the politics, I’m surprised you don’t care whether the rules of F1 are being followed.

  15. Stop trying to make sport political! It’s commentators and media (like you) who cherry-pick which events, where, when, and in what context they decide to cross a purely sporting contest with a totally-unrelated and much bigger domestic policy issue!

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