(Bahrain) Formula 1: an irrelevance?

Wednesday 18th April

The 2012 Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix continues to generate controversy.

A Bahraini Shia Muslim youth takes part in a demonstration calling for cancellation of the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix, on April 17, 2012, in the town of Muharraq

There are three basic positions on the race, to which I’ll add a fourth:

  1. The race is good for Bahrain, bringing in money and uniting the country
  2. The race legitimises a repressive regime that has lost legitimacy in the eyes of its people, therefore a combination of moral and political factors mean it should be cancelled
  3. Whether the race is a good or a bad thing it must go ahead because cancelling it will result in a “loyalist” elements indulging in a sectarian bloodbath as a backlash against its cancellation
  4. The race has become an irrelevance

The first position is, of course, that adopted by the Al Khalifa regime, the FIA and F1 management, regime loyalists, PR agencies, Western expats in Bahrain, and the regime’s Western backers, in particular the UK.

However, events subsequent to last Friday’s announcement that the race will go ahead, both popular uprisings against the race and the regime’s reaction to these, have utterly undermined the “unite” argument. F1 remains a deeply divisive issue, and no amount of propaganda and PR can change this.

The second position is almost certainly that of the majority of the people of Bahrain and probably the “Arab street” in the wider Arab world.

It is the view held by most human rights NGOs and individual activists concerned with Bahrain, much of the non-Western world, and much of liberal and left-of-centre opinion in the West.

Poll after poll conducted by the motorsport media suggest that most of the active F1 fan-base support the cancellation of the event, and unattributed sources within the F1 teams have also expressed unease at the event going ahead.

The third position was first hinted at by BBC Middle East journalist Frank Gardner last week:

There are also moderate, intelligent political figures in the Shia-led opposition who recognise that if the Grand Prix were to be called off then the Sunni community would be so enraged it would be harder than ever to bridge the gap between government and opposition.


Gardner reiterated this position via Twitter yesterday, and the “Sunni backlash” argument against cancelling the Grand Prix has since been adopted by others.

The strengths of this argument are its pragmatic concern for the well-being of ordinary Bahrainis and a sincere desire not to see violence escalating.

Its big weakness, of course, is that it is tantamount to abandoning in the face of threats and intimidation a well-established position in international human rights advocacy: that repressive regimes should not be allowed to use high-profile international events to bolster their legitimacy.

Such boycotts have been used effectively against regimes as bad or worse than the Bahrain one, provided the boycott enjoys popular support. This was clearly the case in the sporting boycott of Apartheid South Africa, for example. The vast majority of South Africans supported the boycott, regardless of the violence and threats of a substantial section of South African society that was opposed to it.

So the desirability of the third position on the Grand Prix boils down to a choice between a pragmatic concern for ordinary people’s safety and welfare, verses an idealistic commitment to progressive change in a country where the majority population are ruled by a repressive minority regime.

The conservative part of my is swayed to a certain extent by the pragmatic argument. It is after all inhuman and inhumane to turn a blind eye to real people’s suffering out of concern for an abstract principle or purist ideal.

The radical part of me, however, understands that the boycott of the F1 is supported by the overwhelming majority of Bahrainis, and their determination to live with whatever the consequences of they boycott might be should be respected.

If the Bahraini opposition and the revolutionary youth are prepared to be /9amood/, “steadfast”, in the face of threats by “loyalist” vigilantes, why shouldn’t their supporteres overseas be similarly determined?

The part of me that wants to insist on a total sporting, cultural and academic boycott of Bahrain is further reinforced by how in the 1980s I have seen the boycott used as part of a successful international strategy to bring to an end Apartheid rule in South Africa.

I’ll never forget the tears I shed at the sight of the endless lines of voters queuing to vote in the country’s first fully democratic election in 1994, which brought Nelson Mandela to power as the country’s first fully-democratically elected president:

Being overly concerned with the sensibilities and threats of the very violent vigilantes who opposed majority rule would not have brought democracy to South Africa.

Then again, the pragmatic part of me recoils in horror at the on-going polarisation of Bahraini society. This is pushing both the loyalist and the opposition “sides” ever further apart as a credible political centre in Bahrain evaporates.

An example of this came today, when the Crown Prince of Bahrain undertook a personal visit to Sanabis. He was not welcomed:


Thus, the polarisation of loyalists around hardliners who would contemplate Bahrain’s absorbtion into Saudi Arabia before majority rule, and radical oppositionists who demand nothing less than “the fall of the regime” propel Bahrain towards a situation that could end up becoming civil war.

This point not lost on the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, who issued a Conflict Warning on Bahrain today:


So regarding the “third position” on the race — that quite probably it is morally wrong for it to go ahead, but pragmatically it should go ahead because cancelling it would lead to further bloodshed and polarisation — I’m caught between my pragmatist head and my idealistic heart.

Fortunately, I feel there is a fourth position. Quite simply this is that the race is, or at least has become, utterly irrelevant.

The regime’s hope that the race would “unite” Bahrain was never credible. What they really hoped for was that the F1 would be a symbolic event that, whatever the realities on the ground in Bahrain, would align with the regime’s early 2012 PR offensive to convince a skeptical world that “Bahrain is back on track”.

What this really meant was that everything is back to “normal”, Khalifa rule can continue as before with a few token reforms, and the opposition can be marginalised and oppressed. The F1 Grand Prix was to be the climax of a concerted PR offensive that would enable the world to assuage whatever moral compunctions it might of had over looking the other way over Bahrain.

I’ve always thought that this was a forlorn hope on the part of the regime. It now lies in tatters. Months of controversy in the run-up to the Bahrain race, and a week of conflict before it, have merely served to once more turn the international spotlight on Bahrain, its social injustices and the hollowness of the “reforms” of which the regime likes to brag.

This hollowness was exposed this week by Amnesty International’s in-depth report, the most thorough investigation into what’s happening in Bahrain since the BICI:


Even motor sport journalists who came to Bahrain simply to cover the GP are beginning to see that the repression, not the race, are likely to be the “real story”.

In this regard, the controversy and escalating conflict around the race have rendered an actual cancellation of the race irrelevant. For the regime, the damage has already been done, the world does not like, so it seems, what they see of the Khalifa’s rule in Bahrain.

Whether the race goes ahead, or whether it doesn’t go ahead, the limits of what a regime like Bahrain’s can achieve through PR have been brutally exposed. Loyalist vigilantes, and the petrol-bombers in the villages can huff and puff all they like, but either way the race is likely to bring violence in its wake.

If it’s cancelled, the sort of loyalist violence Frank Gardner fears will happen; if it continues, violent confrontation in the villages between the regime’s security forces and outraged youth will continue and will probably escalate.

This is a real “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” dilemma, either way the level of death and destruction is likely to be about the same.

This sounds very negative. Is there a positive lesson we can learn from my “fourth position” on the GP, that it has become an irrelevance? I believe there is. What we can learn from this is what ought to have been obvious: the Bahrain GP is a distraction from the real issues; too much water has gone under the bridge in Bahrain for the society to be healed, “united”, by a panem et circenses spectacle   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_circuses

This bloody circus will come and go, and what will happen will happen. The crucial lesson of my fourth position on the GP is both pragmatic and idealistic: let’s look beyond the race, let’s get this bloody circus out of the way and look towards the REAL ISSUE:


In short, a genuine constitutional monarchy. A bloody race cannot plug the gaping chasm that has swallowed up Bahrain’s political centre. Real, negotiation and dialogue, probably supported by an outside body such as the UN can. This is the only way forward.

The F1 just get’s in the way. A good example of this is the Crown Prince’s visit to Sanabis, and the reception he received there. It was a bold move on his part, and deserved a better reception on the part of the folk of Sanabis.

But in a sense, who can blame them? Visits like this should have taken place months ago. Perhaps a truly visionary Crown Prince would have seized the initiative and visited Pearl back in February 2011. Whether he couldn’t do that, or wouldn’t do it, that moment is past.

The Crown Prince’s visit to one of Bahrain’s many underprivileged Shia-majority may have been long overdue may have been long overdue, but surely, “better late than never”?

Yes, but rightly or wrongly the peoples of Sanabis and other villages like it will see the visit as merely a scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel publicity stunt supporting THE BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX! As if the Formula 1 race was the only thing even the liberal, reforming the regime cares about.

Perhaps they are right, or perhaps the visit was mistimed. Visits like this must continue if a credible political centre is to be created and Bahrain’s divided society, at the time of writing as divided as Northern Ireland ever was, is to be healed. The Grand Prix just gets in the way.

And if it gets in the way in 2012, what about 2013 and beyond? I suspect that the Formula 1 authorities are already thinking along these lines.

Formula 1 as a sport has always been dogged by controversy. In the first instance, F1 was controversial because it was a bloody sport. Between F1’s inception in 1950 and the death of the late, great Ayrton Senna in 1994 no fewer than 38 drivers died in accidents:


Along with boxing, F1 was truly the inheritor of the tradition of the Roman circuses. While I do not personally have any problem with sports that involve a serious risk of death or serious injury, this became controversial in the corporate world following Senna’s death in 1994.

By the mid-1990s, the sporting public becoming becoming more ethically sensitive to the issue of death in sport as a spectacle to be enjoyed as entertainment.

This had a commercial impact. As Corporate Social Responsibility became ever more important to motorcar manufacturers and to advertisers, so fewer and fewer of them were keen to be seen to be supporting a blood sport.

F1 overcame this difficulty be redefining its rules and “formula” to make the sport far, far safer. No driver has been killed since 1994.

But this new safety came at a price: the racing became ever more dull and predictable, “formulaic”, in fact. The F1 cars less and less resembled the sort of cars that anybody drives outside of F1, or, indeed, cars in other forms of motorsport.

Likewise, F1 drivers began to inhabit a world of their own, that had little or no connection with the wider world of motorsport. Nowadays, most F1 drivers enter the sport through Karting, not other car sports. F1 was this becoming ever more irrelevant to the real world of most motorists and motorsports enthusiasts. It was becoming boring.

F1’s way around that was to internationalise the sport, particularly in the world’s emerging economies of the developing world. Bernie Ecclestone took the lead in developing this new F1.

These economies weren’t concerned with the thrillingness or otherwise of the racing. Rather, they craved a symbolic spectacle that announced to the world their “developed” status, rather as they craved tall buildings or an atomic bomb.

Bahrain was one of these “new” F1 countries, along with China, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey and the UAE.  Manufacturers and advertisers got to introduce their products to vast new, emerging markets. F1 became not a real motorsport, but  a vast, world-wide marketing, advertising, and product-endorsement opportunity for first world products in the developing world.

The challenge Bahrain poses is this: if F1 was nearly killed off by blood on the race tracks, what effect will blood being spilled outside of the tracks have? Can F1 afford to be seen as a status symbol for oppressive regimes any more than it could afford to be seen as a blood sport after 1994?

Keeping F1 out of other political controversies in emerging economy countries was, I suspect, the reason why the FIA and F1 Management were so anxious that the Bahrain race should go ahead. They didn’t want to set a precedent. But it is also why there will now be a question mark over Bahrain’s long-term status as a F1 host.

Ironically, 2012 has so far proved to be the year that the actual racing was once more becoming interesting. As it is, the thrilling Chinese GP is not what is being talked about, instead it’s the mess that is Bahrain. The Bahrain GP is becoming an irrelevance…..

Bahrain: what would Ayton Senna think?

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