Should F1 race in Bahrain?
Bahrain has been on the lips of many journalists over the past few weeks in anticipation for the Formula 1 race to be held in the Kingdom over the weekend of the 20th, 21st and 22nd of April.
Once again though sport and politics clash. What started as an all-party Bahraini call for improved constitutional rights has, twelve months on, degenerated into sectarian aggression. For those old enough to understand the religious polarisation in N. Ireland there are stark parallels.
To gain some perspective and understanding it is crucial to point out that Bahrain is a Sunni led government with a Shia Muslim majority people. The security forces comprise Sunni’s though many do not have Bahraini ancestry. For many years Shia have considered themselves the underclass and have been treated as second class by the Sunni monarchy who has consistently favoured their own sect. Many felt though opportunities for Shia were better than similar unfavoured classes in the region which coupled with a feeling of Bahraini first had led to a peaceful co-existence.
The geopolitical position of Bahrain in the in the Gulf has also to be understood. Linked by causeway to eastern Saudi Arabia and its oil fields it faces, across the water, Iran. Bahrain is also home to the US Fifth fleet, demonstrating why it is so important to Western economic and security interests.
Bahrain’s unrest which led to cancellation of last year’s Grand Prix came on the coat tails of the Arab Spring – the wave of civil unrest which swept N. Africa and into the Middle East and indeed still continues today in Syria.
The crackdown though was brutal even in Arab terms and with free reign given to the security forces backed by Peninsula shield troop’s sent in from Saudi Arabia, human rights abuses did one could say inevitably occur. Remember Mubarak in Egypt had fallen, Tunisia had changes and all eyes were on how long Gaddafi in Libya would last. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas and the reaction from hard liners in the ruling family was entirely predictable. Remember also that the Crown Prince all but pulled off a peace deal – which side scuppered it at the last moment remains one for the historians.
King Hamad though took the unprecedented step to set up an independent commission to deal with the failings and accepted without reservation recommendations for future reform published with final report on 23 November 2011.
This gave an unparalleled opportunity for the opposition Al Wefaq National Islamic Society to enter into serious dialogue.
Talking, as in Ireland, takes time. Healing will take even longer.
Wary Al Wefaq remain and it is only time which will judge the success of the road to unification – if indeed it can be achieved.
What is true though is that reforms are in progress; some still remain interned, even on hunger strike but what is more disappointing is the continuing apparently meaningless daily violence. Burning tyres on highways, Molotov cocktails thrown into schools, gas bottle explosions, even beating of Asian ex patriot’s interference with daily life of the working population has an attritional effect.
The response by the now monitored security forces is measured but the drone of helicopters and use of tear gas during regular confrontations shows that divisions continue to run deep. Let us be clear the Sunni Royal family are not going to cede power yet are setting about improving life for its population. This is difficult with the economy on the rocks and limited oil revenues – it relies on support from its GCC counterparts.
At the end of last year most believed in the UniF1ied banner, that the GP was part of the healing process. Only in recent months has it become a fulcrum over which sectarian see-saw has swung.
The level of violence has risen with casualties of security personnel rising with seven injured in a bombing and others injured as they tried to clear road blocks. Wefaq have resorted to guerrilla style tactics setting alight tyres on roads and raiding shops, throwing Molotov cocktails into schools and burning banks – the attempt to disrupt daily life and thus those coming to visit Bahrain is clear.
They have been supported by the media and some non-government organisations – in particular Amnesty International who are guilty of double standards in not providing a balanced report, have caused a lot of negative speculation, uncertainty and damaging effects to the country and rising the fear in those attending the event.
I am lucky, in some respects, that I am able to receive better information than most due to the fact my parents live in the Bahrain. I had first-hand experience there last year for the GP that did not take place my first Formula 1 race outside of England.
Formula One Management (FOM) and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) called the race off back in 2011 due to the political unrest when the demonstrations were at their highest. Manama the capital had been flooded by protests surrounding the Pearl Roundabout which was ultimately torn down and the intersection remains closed.
While I was there thankfully my Dad and I were able to take a drive and were fortunate enough to cover a lot of ground and I was able to see a lot of Bahrain. Manama was a tricky area to still get in and out of but the surrounding areas at that point were still quiet. We were able to get down to the track and as a facility the Bahrain International Circuit is exceptional. A lot of people dislike the track in Bahrain; there is a lot more to the circuit than meets the eye, notably the undulation changes and it has been further modified since.
I also got to see the oil fields which uniquely give off a form of beauty to the landscape that is otherwise decimated by sand. The only time I personally was affected was when both my Dad and I were on the wrong end of tear gas. Still even after that I did not feel threatened or at any unease. Passing through barricades was no issue when the locals saw you were from the Western World they waved you on by.
I was asked by many friends and family why on earth was I still going to Bahrain when the race has been cancelled. Two reasons, firstly I wanted to see my parents but also I wanted to see experience a new country for myself even if the uprising had broken out. My Dad was asked many times why was he not returning to England, beyond the protests and stereotyping the Middle East he still had to work and peoples day to day lives still continued.
Fast forward to 2012 and the same questions that were being asked prior to the start of the 2011 race are being asked now. I find it difficult to see why though. Bahrain has changed in the past 12 months and while protests still happen they have spread to the smaller surrounding villages and are nowhere near the scale they were when Pearl Roundabout was occupied. The government have promised reform and while minimal changes have been implemented, it was always going to be a long drawn out process for it to be concluded.
It has been asked if Formula 1 should be going to Bahrain because it backs the government making it look like that Bahrain is fine. Bahrain is not fine and will not be for a period of time but it is significantly better than it was. Formula 1 then also has been looked at as a catalyst for Bahrainis to protest and “show the world” through the Formula 1 media what is going on in their country.
Significantly it is Al Wefaq who openly declares they intend disrupting the week leading up to the GP with daily protests. Of equal significance is that these are approved rallies by the government supporting the concept of peaceful demonstration. Let us all hope this remains the case. What is in no doubt is that the government will make sure the event takes place.
Monitoring of this will be the world’s media. It is unfortunate only a few weeks ago that activists from the West thought they could enter Bahrain on visit visas and then join the protests. No country is going to accept this situation. Access has thus become stricter but the same could be said for America for those attending the race in Austin, Texas they are going to need a visa. Dare I mention China – the double standards are obvious.
Two weeks ago my mother touched down in Bahrain and had to wait forty five minutes for clearance but still got through customs after a small amount of questioning. The Formula 1 teams and media have special visas for the country and will be welcomed with warm open arms I expect.
Last year England had protests in London, Manchester and other cities but you do not see Silverstone under any threat. I live in Manchester and was very close to the violence. In the space of a few months I had gone from protests in the Middle East to protests on my doorstep. The reality is that all countries have their political problems. The world is not in a very healthy state as it is. A few years ago local Brazilians attempted to kidnap Jenson Button while driving away from the circuit. Sao Paulo is still on the calendar and no one has said anything.
The media as ever have massively blown up what is going on because it is the Middle East and it is an easy target due to the religious state of the region. Mexico is vying to have a Formula 1 race in the next few years. The police and government are in a constant head to head battle with drug cartels and yet Mexico might get a race. China has daily human rights questions hung above its head and they blacked out Twitter and Facebook. Russia hosts its first race in 2013 and is hardly renowned for warm welcoming hospitality.
Bahrain is no worse than any other country on our planet but because it is small, vulnerable, in the middle of the two power houses of Iran and Saudi Arabia the media and I include social media sites think they can swarm all over.
Even if Bahrain was not going through the current unrest it is going through, should Formula 1 race there anyway? My answer is why not. Every country we visit has some form of unrest or some sort of dispute. Human rights are questioned in every country in what is “right” or “fair” for a country in the first instance it is for them to decide – Syria is a case in point as to how the international community wishes to respond.
So where does this leave the contractual position. Frankly it is in neither side’s interest for the event to be cancelled but Al Wefaq will step up their protests like, just as a hooked fish, the media reacts.
As long as safety is guaranteed the right to demonstrate peacefully can go ahead.
Freight and display cars have already arrived: Today the main circus lands. The GP is on despite the last minute protestations on top on the Bahrain Embassy in London (why did Met Police not see that coming?) or Amnesty International being given air time.
Next week the paddock and western media move on, what then, Bahrain 2013?