Bahrain hosts the travelling circus of Formula One this weekend. As anti-government protesters continue to battle for political reforms, race organisers have shrugged off pressure to cancel the race, as they did last year. This time round, they are determined to hold the race, no matter the backlash.
This weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix comes just one week after the last race in Shanghai, China. There, Nico Rosberg followed up his maiden pole position with his first ever F1 victory. And what a victory it was.
In three races this season, we’ve had three different winners, from three different teams. Pundits still tip McLaren to have an edge over the rest of the grid on race day, but so far this advantage has failed to translate into the same kind of dominance Sebastian Vettel achieved last season.
With no clear favourite then, Rosberg, no doubt buoyed by his success in China, will fancy his chances on Sunday. It’s not likely to be an easy race though. Those in the know warn that we have yet to see what Schumacher can do with this new Mercedes if he is given a clean run on race day.
And while the race itself is set to offer gripping entertainment, whoever does take the chequered flag will have to compete with Bahraini politics for the headlines. The lead-up to the race has already been overshadowed by the decision to race in Bahrain.
Bernie Ecclestone and the sport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, have boldly ignored calls to cancel the race – as they did last year as a result of the stand-off between anti-government protesters and the monarchy.
It is, however, not only the safety of the drivers and teams that are at stake. Bahraini officials have already assured the FIA that security will be beefed up for the race. Anybody even remotely involved with the Grand Prix will enjoy the cotton-wooled comfort of security sponsored by a royal family, keen to show the world all is well in Bahrain.
F1 supremo Ecclestone has been spectacularly aloof to reports of violence in the restive island. He has fiercely defended the decision to go ahead with the race in Bahrain. “There’s nothing happening (in Bahrain),” Ecclestone said to the press last weekend in China. “I know people that live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.”
It is, however, not for the safety concerns of the F1 paddock that anti-government protesters had called for the event to be cancelled. They argue the decision to continue with the race this weekend will lend legitimacy to a regime that continues to perpetrate human rights abuses. Human rights activists fear further bloodshed and a violent crackdown by authorities as Bahraini authorities preen the island for the race.
Nabeel Rajab, an eminent activist from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, reportedly said: “I’m afraid we might see local people… killed in the coming days because of the F1.”
Critics then argue that Formula One, as a sport, may have missed an opportunity to take a popular, moral decision to call off the race, shirking the big bucks for solidarity with Bahrainis who daily suffer human rights abuses.
Formula One is, of course, among the less politicised of global sports, but in the decision to go ahead with the race Ecclestone and the FIA have involved themselves in Bahraini politics. The decision to host the grand prix in Bahrain this year is ultimately a demonstration of faith in the word of the Bahraini government.
The FIA claim its President, Jean Todt, had meetings with politicians, diplomats and the crown prince during a visit to Bahrain last November. Todt was assured that stringent security measures would be implement to protect the organisers, participants and fans from harm.
John Yates, Scotland Yard’s former top counter-terrorism official, who is now advising the Bahraini government on police reform, also chimed in with his glowing account of life in Bahrain. He wrote to Todt telling him the country was predominantly peaceful and social media sites were presenting a “distorted picture” of the situation. “Along with my family, I feel completely safe. Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London,” he wrote.
Yates may well be drinking Bahraini-brewed Kool-Aid. The ugliest scenes don’t play out in the posh neighbourhoods of the capital, Manama. His family may well feel better off in Manama than they do in London because they are removed from the harsher realities of life in Bahrain. It is in the villages surrounding the capital, where the country’s Shia majority live in repression and relative poverty, that things are not so safe. There, people live daily in a haze of tear gas, subdued by the threat of rubber bullets.
In a report released this week, London-based human rights group Amnesty International paints a far different picture. If anything, the report firmly refutes the version of Bahraini life Yates offered the FIA.
More than one year after authorities violently cracked down on the tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets during the “Arab Spring styled” uprising to demand a greater political voice in the country, Amnesty found little had changed. The report notes that the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, set up by the government to investigate the crackdown, found that authorities committed “gross human rights violations,” including excessive use of force against protesters and widespread torture. But Amnesty argues that the government’s attempts at reform since then have been “piecemeal”.
The report succinctly observes, “The Bahraini authorities have become more concerned with rebuilding their image and investing in public relations than with actually introducing real human rights and political reforms in the country.”
According to Amnesty, violence against protesters continues unabated. Hundreds of dissidents remain in prison after military courts meted out harsh prison sentences. Among these prisoners is Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Al-Khawaja, together with seven other leaders of opposition groups, was sentenced to life in prison for “plotting to topple the government.” He has now been on a hunger strike for over 60 days.
Last week, the Prime Minister of Denmark said Al-Khawaja was in a “very critical” condition. Al-Khawaja has dual Danish-Bahraini citizenship. Denmark has requested Bahrain to release him into its custody – to no avail.
In recent weeks, as reports of Al-Khawaja’s rapidly deteriorating condition continue to surface, the call for Al-Khawaja’s release has grown ever stronger but fallen on deaf ears. And as concerns for Al-Khawaja’s life increase, opposition leaders on Sunday announced a week of pro-democracy protests leading up to the grand prix.
There is little doubt that, just as the government uses the race to improve its image abroad, the opposition will also use the novelty of media attention on Bahrain to further its cause. The politics of Bahrain are more complex than the convenience of the narrative of good guys pitted against bad guys. This is a battle for democracy – it is the battle of a repressed majority for greater political participation. It is a battle for human rights. It is a clash between the haves and have-nots. It is also in parts a clash between two rival sects.
On cue, the International Crisis Group this week issued a security alert for Bahrain, warning that violence was ready to erupt in Bahrain once more. “Beneath a façade of normalisation, Bahrain is sliding toward another dangerous eruption of violence,” it says.
“The government acts as if partial implementation of recommendations from the November 2011 Independent Commission of Inquiry will suffice to restore tranquillity, but there is every reason to believe it is wrong. Political talks – without which the crisis cannot be resolved – have ground to a halt, and sectarian tensions are mounting.”
The decision to host the race in Bahrain this week undermines the deep divides in Bahrain. This race will be no panacea to the Bahraini people, who have to live there long after the pit lane has emptied. If anything, the race risks further inflaming an already fragile situation. As one protester told a British journalist this week, “I love F1. But not over our blood…” DM