THE SHOW DID NOT GO ON - WHAT NOW FOR F1 AND BAHRAIN?
This was meant to be the race report for the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix. Let's face it though, this isn't the ordinary background to one of my race reports and that's because there was no 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix. The reasons for that affect F1 deeply and yet at the same time this goes way beyond the sport. Some non-F1 fans would say it makes the sport irrelevant but to us F1 fans the sport will never be irrelevant. Some F1 fans will ask who cares about the bigger picture. That is small-minded and naive. Like it or not, politics is a bigger force than sport and if Bernie does not play his cards right, the sport could be buried. Last but not least, this is personal for me, as I'm sure it is for anyone who's ever been to Bahrain. I was there for the '08 Grand Prix. Current events on that little rock make my memories seem cheap.
Back in '06 (I think) F1 Racing magazine did their season preview and rated each of the circuits and locations with "F1 Racing likes" for something they enjoyed and "F1 Racing does not like" for something they didn't enjoy. Their verdict on Bahrain included "F1 Racing does not like...sandstorms". In '08, there were only physical sandstorms and Dad and I were able to weather those. The sandstorm sweeping through Bahrain right now was nowhere on the horizon and pretty much came out of nowhere a month ago.
Inspired by the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, a group of mainly Shia Bahraini citizens started calling for the heads of the royal family there. My first instinct was that the royals there weren’t that bad. After all, the place isn't like its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which very few Westerners would touch with a ten foot bargepole! Well, it depends on your definition of "bad". Yes, you can booze there; yes, you don't have to cover up so much there; yes, the place is a lot more welcoming generally...but to a lot of Shia that counts for zippo. The place sells itself as a liberal democracy but plenty of Shia have not been given the benefits of that. Stories of vote-rigging and the torture of political opponents by the state bubbled up as soon as I started looking into the situation.
So, a group of them (and a few Sunnis) set up a protest camp at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. Enter the military who drive them away. Tanks are on the streets just weeks before the F1 show is due to come to town! Holding a Grand Prix in this sort of environment with 30,000 (at least) protestors more than willing to cause chaos, and hell-knows how-many trigger-happy armed police facing them was a recipe for potentially the biggest disaster in the sport's history. Yet "the show goes on right?" asks Bernie, caught completely off guard. The Bahraini royals pull the military back in an effort to calm things down. The protestors retake the Pearl Roundabout. And stay there. Bahrain faces political stalemate and the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman, credit to him, realises that his country is in no shape to host a Grand Prix.
For the first time ever, a Grand Prix had been cancelled at short notice for local political reasons. It was arguably the saddest day to be an F1 fan since Ayrton Senna's death in '94. Yet it was the safest option. Then however, Bernie Ecclestone, he who "no one so much as sneezes in F1 without his say so" made the most ignorant move I have ever seen him make. "We need a Bahrain Grand Prix this year," he says. "It will be later in the year," he says. Hmmm...well, Bernie would probably be the first to admit that he is ignorant about regular politics and sees it as irrelevant to a global entity like F1. Let me see though, the royals were going nowhere and the protestors were going nowhere. There was no reason to believe that this would be settled any time soon.
So, let's go back to the political side of things. The biggest unanswered question is who are these protestors and where do they come from? Their supporters would say that they are everyone in Bahrain and it is humanity's duty to support them. Hmmm...let me see...what is humanity? It's the kind of question that gives me a headache. Let's face it, Crown Prince Salman is just as human as a Shia nobody who wants his head on a platter; a Westerner is just as human as an Arab yet we all know what the history between the West and the Middle East is like. I am as human as the most demented and ignorant Spanish Fernando Alonso fan! Humanity are nothing if not individuals! The one thing that bonds us all is the fact that there are no obvious bonds between us all. To quote the Editors song: "Blood runs through our veins, that's where our similarity ends".
Yet we are individuals who at the very least want to bond with others. To my mind, this is where sports, amongst other things comes in. Politics divides more than it unites. Sport unites more than it divides. It is an icebreaker; it is something that's easy to talk about. Have you ever heard of friendships being broken because two individuals support different teams, drivers or athletes? I haven't. Yet I know of plenty of instances where friendships have been strained or broken due to political disagreements. Humans need sport or similar interests to give themselves a break from the uglier parts of this reality. In short, they need the back pages to escape from the front pages. To quote someone from a current affairs forum: "Politics is a necessary evil, but it is an evil". It is ultimately what runs this world, therefore a smart person takes an interest in it. Yet I will never consider myself a political activist or a hardcore political analyst for want of a better term. I can and do talk politics with such people but it can be awkward. I am a sports and sci-fi fan with an interest in politics.
However not all F1 fans are particularly smart. The idea that both sides would have behaved civilly if the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix had taken place was a noble one. It had history to back it up. In Ancient Greece, wars came to a halt for the Olympic Games. In World War I, fighting stopped to celebrate Xmas and to play football. F1 likes to see itself as a bridge between peoples after all. Well, if the Grand Prix had gone ahead, then as a loyal F1 fan I would have watched both qualifying and the race, as per usual. And written a report on it, as per usual. However, someone up there would have had to be doing the sport a pretty big favour had the event gone off peacefully. After all, who brought F1 to Bahrain? The royals. Disrupting the Grand Prix in oh-so-many possible ways, both peaceful and violent would have been a very good way for the protestors to show the royals up. Nothing else would have mattered to them.
We still haven't answered the question of who these protestors are though. Everyone in Bahrain? Yeah right! Even the BBC, who like most major media organisations have given the royals a pretty big hammering , talk about "Other Bahrainis" in their recent summary of the state of play there. So, who are these revolutionaries? The Occam's razor approach says that they're just regular Bahrainis, mainly Shia that don't feel like they're being given a fair deal by the current government. Yet that's not the only theory out there. Others say that the Iranian regime, also Shia and facing a revolution of its own, is involved in some way and at least one blog comment claimed that this is nothing more than a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia (the royals are Sunni) and Iran: basically that Bahrain's been reduced to a battlefield between two of the Middle East's more repressive regional powers. In that case, to paraphrase the tagline from Alien vs Predator, whoever wins Bahrain loses.
However if there is uncertainty over the motivations of the revolutionaries then one thing is certain. There are some lines you do not cross. Ironically on the weekend on which the Bahrain Grand Prix was meant to have taken place, the royals called in the Gulf Co-operation Council (the GCC of which both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are members). They steamed into the Pearl Roundabout camp and well...blasted the place full of artillery before imposing a curfew! Note to the people and rulers of Bahrain, this is not how a liberal democracy deals with dissidents of any kind! If this is what the royals are willing to resort to, they have either idiotic or criminal tendencies, and a lot of people would say I'm being very generous!
So, what can anyone do about this? Well, with Western military forces currently aiding Libyan rebels in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, Western military action could surely be an option. A relatively serious BBC article asks why the West and the US in particular are not considering that. The obvious answer is one they've missed out. The fact that Bahrain has a British Club should tell you that a lot of Brits, amongst other Westerners, live there. Not all of them have bailed out. Now, my Dad worked in Saudi Arabia in 2007/08. That regime is pretty scummy but it would have been one thing for locals to have harmed him, another entirely had Western forces decided to suddenly bomb the place while he was living there (just trying to get some extra money and stave off boredom) and then claim the moral high ground! I don't think I would have been able to live with that, and neither would friends and relatives be able to live with it if their loved ones were under threat of being bombed by their own military. Collateral damage is a fact of war. Bombing somewhere where a significant amount of your countrymen (and we're not exactly talking British-born jihadists in Afghanistan here) are living would make you little better than the likes of Gaddafi.
So, what can and should be done about the situation in Bahrain? The obvious answer is that the royals should be restrained in some way and that the people of Bahrain (at least those that support the royals) need to be given a reality check! OK how? Will peaceful campaigning from Western activists be effective? Well it's certainly worth a go but there's no guarantee of it working. The fact is that while the revolutionaries are obviously peaceful from the point of view of a lot of Westerners, the "other” Bahrainis see them more as intimidating and ignorant of what it takes to run a democracy. Will they listen to a lecture on democracy from the West? You'd have thought they would but human beings aren't always logical. 'You don't know what it's like here' is a plausible response.
Next question, is there anything F1 can do? Well the sport's attitude to these situations is always going to be that it's not their fight. Technically it isn't and the fact is that F1 has already disassociated itself as much as it can from the country. As long as the revolution continues, the sport will not be touching the place. Making any other moves would be a serious gamble for Bernie, and for better or worse I cannot see him being the sort of person to take those sorts of gambles. Whoever runs Bahrain this time next year, he'll want to do a deal with them for a Grand Prix.
So, let's fast forward for a bit. Let's say the royals manage to somehow hold on to power. What would that mean for Bahrain? As much as I hate to say it, I can't see how the country is going to be able to return to its previous, relaxed self if the royals hold on after this revolution. They have been scared. If they were to survive they would continue coming down hard on revolutionaries and potential revolutionaries, possibly to the point of paranoia. They will do so a lot more visibly than they have done previously. Yes, Westerners would probably still be able to chill out in various places but it'll be more obvious than before that something isn't quite right.
If the royals manage to hold on to power, what would that mean for F1? Bernie would be happy to do a deal for a 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix with the royals and, as a loyal F1 fan, I would watch both the qualifying and the race and write a normal report about it. However, after the events of 2011 I would be very reluctant to visit Bahrain again under the current regime. I'd just be seeing ghosts. That's not the only issue. The Bahraini royals have shown their dark side to the whole world. If F1 continues to be associated with the regime every pro-democracy activist out there will turn their fire on it. The nearest F1's been to this sort of situation was in 1985 when the world was coming down hard on the apartheid regime of South Africa and F1 was being pressurised to cancel that year's South African Grand Prix. That year's race went ahead but then-FIA (motor racing's governing body) president Jean Marie Balestre pulled rank on Bernie a few days afterwards to announce that there would be no further South African Grand Prix while the country remained under the apartheid regime. If current FIA president Jean Todt were to make a similar move concerning Bahrain I suspect he'd have done it already.
The bottom line is, though, for both the sake of the moral standing of the sport (and therefore long term sustainability) that it would be best if there were no further Bahrain Grand Prix while the current regime is in place. If that means that the 2010 race is the last ever Bahrain Grand Prix, then so be it. Abu Dhabi is run by a similar regime and while some F1 fans might think that that place is stable...well they were saying the same about Bahrain this time last year! Bernie had better be prepared to consider cancelling the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as well. Nowhere is safe for international sport in the Middle East right now. The entire region is up for grabs politically.
So, let's flip things about. If the revolutionaries take power, what would that mean for Bahrain? Well, the one thing that can be guaranteed is that Bahrain would be Shia-dominated. Would it be more democratic? Well, that depends on the nature of the revolutionaries. Best case scenario, it could be like Bahrain '08 with added democracy. Worst case scenario, the talk about freedom and democracy could go out the window; I mean, what would stop the new Shia government from persecuting anyone it associates with the royal regime, including Sunnis and expats who tried to stay out of the conflict?
If the revolutionaries take power, what would it mean for F1? Well, I'm sure Bernie would try and do a deal with the new Shia government but even if the new government was democratic, there's no guarantee that they'd want anything to do with him, after all, he's a partner of the despised royals. Or they might be less willing than the royals to pay his asking fee. Bottom line, if a democratic Shia government decided they no longer wanted a Grand Prix on their turf for whatever reason, then so be it. It's their country after all.
Whatever does happen, F1 has only suffered a flesh wound. The new season will now start in Australia. The wound will heal, the sport will move on. Lessons will be learned, I hope.
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