Formula One is a sport enjoyed by millions around the world for its high speed, high octane and glamorous image. The sport is, however, a sport like many other today, an activity for the higher echelons of world society, with tickets to enter a watch to race exorbitantly high(£90 for a child general admission ticket to Silverstone), and carries an astronomically high carbon footprint.
With Formula One set to return to the Bahraini circuit after a hiatus of one year, after the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA) gave the race the green light yesterday, it is interesting to note comments from the British owner of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone made to the media over the past two weeks.
It’s business as usual. I don’t think the people who are trying to demonstrate a little bit are going to use anything to do with F1. If they did they would be a little bit silly.
He blamed the media for enflaming the situation, saying: “The problem is people like you who make the concerns not the teams and not the people in Bahrain.
Seriously, the press should just be quiet and deal with the facts rather than make up stories. The good thing about Bahrain is it seems more democratic there than most places. People are allowed to speak when they want, they can protest if they want to.
Interesting comments from Bernie there (The press should just be quiet?!). Interesting in the sense that he is either completely ill informed about the situation in Bahrain or is aware and dismissive of their relevance in relation to his race.
Let us rewind to last year’s uprising and compare it to the situation today in the small island state.
The Shiite say no more
The uprising was undertaken by the Shiite majority of Bahrain against the Sunni elite who comprise of, the monarchy, the Al Khalifa family, all the senior positions within the government and that of the armed forces and interior security forces. From this position of absolute power, an attempt was made to blame the uprising on an Iranian influence (Iran being a majority Shiite nation). However there is limited evidence on this framing of the narrative. This is in essence an attempt at a diversionary tactic by the rulers of Bahrain. Employed to halt any attempts by western powers looking to pressure the regime in to a process of serious reform, inlight of the dangers of an Iranian theifdom, playing to western paranoia over Iran, rising up on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter. The real reasons for the uprising are much less exotic.
While Manama aims to describe the recent events as an Iranian-instigated rebellion, the main cause of the Shia-led uprising is the government’s unwillingness to expand the 2000 reform initiative of informal and formal practices of discrimination, electoral restrictions in the free formation of political parties and failure to address the weakening of socio-economic issues, especially the high unemployment rate.
During the uprising, which consisted of unarmed demonstrators, taking aim at the structural inequalities faced by the Shitte majority as detailed above, which were met with crushing violence by the authorities, a quarter of the staff at Bahrain International Circuit were arrested for their support of the FIA decision to suspend the race in response to the uprising. This included senior officials of the race circuit.
What is the situation in Bahrain today?
According to a March 28th report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) many of the recommendations of The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) set up by the King following the uprising and subsequent crushing have yet to be implemented.
Opinion on the race being held is mixed within Bahrain, however even as the race draws closer demonstrations continue throughout the kingdom and are met with the same violent repression that was wittnessed in the capital at the height of the uprising in 2011. A prisoner and Human Rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja detained in last year’s uprising has been hunger strike for the past eight weeks. Is this really the right time to hold the race? When the majority of the citizens of Bahrain are still denied their basic human rights and chance to realise their potential?
Many argue that if the FIA were to take Bahrain off the race calendar they would have to remove other circuites, such as in China, who have a poor human rights record. I argue that this is a weak and diversionary argument. Bahrain is within the western bloc, it has close relations with the United States and Europe (including the UK, which I will come to shortly). It is not an Iran, Libya or Syria where outside pressure can only, it seems, come in form of sanctions and military attack. A FIA pull
ing of the Grand Prix would have a huge impact on the image and self confidence of the minority, repressive regime in Bahrain. It could force them to implement all of the recommendations of the BICI and further pressure allied governments in the west and gulf region to urge further reform to give the Shiite majority their rightful place in Bahraini society, at the top.
This chain of events could only result if the FIA and British government, along with the rest of the west, did not have their own perceived self interests at the top of their agenda in relation to the crisis in Bahrain.
Britain, like with the majority of nations within the Middle East, has a long imperial history within Bahrain. British power was one of the main reasons the Al Khalifi family were able to stay in power when under attack from other outside forces.
The official British response to the widespread human rights violations within the kingdom has been as murky and hypocritical as the Americans, who favor the continued mooring of their Fifth Fleet in Bahrain above all else. .
Cameron has met with the Kinf of Bahrain several times since the outbreak of the protests, which has included friendly photocalls and an emphasis on stability.
Both sides now want to get things back on an even keel and the king’s reaction to the [commission’s] report has helped this process enormously.
What does an even keel mean? The continuation of the status quo? If that is the case then that is in contradiction to the demands of the protestors in Bahrain. As we have seen from the HRW report, many of the recommendations from the commission cited by the diplomat have yet to be implemented.
Britain and the west need to stop favouring stability over the rights of the majority in Bahrain. As for Formula One, I have little interest in the safety of the teams, which has been erroneously cited as one of the main concerns for the staging of the race. It would be to their credit, if instead of soley expressing their concerns, as Australian driver Mark Webber has, a driver or team/s would pull out of the race to send a clear message to the FIA and Al Khalfi regime, we will not legitimise your continued illegitimate rule.
Jonathan Woodrow Martin