Having previously been an avid Formula 1 watcher, I find myself compelled to write a piece on one of the factors that contributed to my stopping watching the sport I love a couple of years ago: namely, the utter disregard for the political implications of the sport’s refusal to cancel the Grand Prix in Bahrain. The sport has collectively contributed to legitimising the regime in Bahrain, despite a vast human rights crisis in the country. The reasons are not hard to find.
The Bahrain Grand Prix takes place this weekend. Since the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 Bahrain has been largely off the news agenda and off the lips of Western officials, but the importance of the small Sheikdom is not negligible. Located in the most important strategic energy location in the world, the Gulf Peninsula, it forms a vital part of the system of global energy supplies. All 6 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, are ruled as dictatorships with severe levels of repression, and if one were to fall to democracy, the others could follow.
Bahrain has seen the most unrest of the GCC states since 2011, as the Shia majority has attempted to rise up against the minority Sunni rulers. Around 90 protesters have been shot dead in the streets. Incarceration without trial and torture is rampant, as confirmed in an official report set up by the Bahraini government as part of a ‘reform’ process. The report even stated that the torture and repression ‘could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure’. The Bahraini government then went on a tour de force to whitewash its record, employing Western PR firms to use an array of techniques to make it seem like a progressive, reformist regime. The ostensive reform-agenda has failed to fool human rights groups, who have continued to document how doctors have been trialled for helping wounded protesters, activists have been taken from their homes in raids, and objectors to brutal police treatment have been thrown in prison.
In March 2011 Saudi Arabia ‘intervened’ in Bahrain (at the ‘request’ of the Bahraini government) to help put down the uprising, with little Western protest. Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, wrote how a senior Western diplomat at the UN assured him that Hillary Clinton (then-US Secretary of State) gave an explicit green light to Saudi Arabia to carry out the invasion in return for Saudi support at the Arab League for the Western intervention in Libya. These claims were also reportedly given to the Asia Times Online which claims that ‘two different diplomats, a European and a member of the BRIC group’ stated that this US-Saudi deal had been struck. It is impossible to confirm these claims, but they seem plausible given the interests the US has in Bahrain, the close relationship between the Saudi’s and the US, and similar US actions in the past (more on that in later weeks).
Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and along with the other Gulf states, buys millions of dollars (and pounds) worth of military equipment off the US and UK every year. The Saudi National Guard, which was the main force used to crush the protests in Bahrain, has long been trained by British forces, including in ‘public order and sniper training’. In September 2011, the US moved to sell ‘armored vehicles and optically-tracked wire-guided missiles to Bahrain for an estimated cost of $53 million’. In 2012, ‘licenses were granted for £2.2m-worth of UK weapons to be exported’ to Bahrain. Bahrain is designated by the US as a ‘major non-NATO ally’.
A report by the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, headed by the now-US Secretary of State John Kerry, explicitly states why the US has made no effort to help the democracy protesters in Bahrain. The major goals for the US in the region, it explains, are for ‘The United States [to] carefully shape its military presence so as not to create a popular backlash, while retaining the capability to protect the free flow of critical natural resources and to provide a counterbalance to Iran’ (page 4). A passing mention to democracy is made, with no real recommendations on how this is to be achieved. The main focus for the US and UK is on preserving the dictatorial, bloody regime in Bahrain, a compliant, pro-Western government that does its best to serve Western interests and keep the population subdued.
Against this backdrop, Formula 1 has done its best to keep in line with elite opinion in the West. After the race was called off for a while in 2011, it has gone ahead the following two years despite mass protests by the Bahraini people calling for it to be cancelled. The wilful ignorance amongst the F1 elite is astounding- racing legend Jackie Stewart claimed that the unrest was ‘no different to the Glasgow Rangers and the Glasgow Celtics’, and that Bahrain has ‘already started a move towards democracy’. The ever-principled Bernie Ecclestone (head of F1) has compared the protests to those at Thatcher’s funeral in Britain, and last year called all controversy ‘a lot of nonsense’. He claimed he wanted an earthquake to occur so the media would start writing about that instead. In 2012, three-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel felt that it was ‘all a lot of hype’, and wished it would blow over so ‘then we can start worrying about the stuff that really matters like tyre temperatures, cars’. Clearly tear gas being fired at protesters, ITN film crew being forced to leave the country for filming protests, and detention of leading activists is of little concern to teams, drivers, and Formula 1 bosses.
Conservative MP David Davis last year called it an ‘example of where big money is over-ruling serious ethical concerns’, and his analysis is surely partly correct. To F1, the money is far more important than the principle. However, the race acts not only as a large source of revenue for F1 and the Bahraini government, but it also helps legitimise the ruling class in Bahrain, the favoured Western allies. That there should be little concern for human rights and democracy is of little surprise, when the people who run F1 are no doubt immersed in the norms and values of the elite class to which they belong. Commercial incentives are important, but not necessarily the entire story. As Robert Fisk pointed out last year, would Bernie Ecclestone host a race in Iran or Syria, Western enemies, even if they were prepared to pay $40m to do so? The answer is likely no- F1 will host races in countries which are ruled by governments the West likes, no matter how oppressive they are. But when the government is an ‘official enemy’ of the West, suddenly the human rights issues, and the legitimacy which the race would lend the ‘enemy’ government, become important (China is a special case). That is why the Western client-regime of Bahrain will continue to be allowed to host races as it guns down and tortures its citizens- and why we won’t be hearing about the Tehran Grand Prix any time soon.
Another post on Bahrain and the Gulf states will follow in the coming weeks.