On Bahrain

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

So, I’ve done it. I’ve bitten the metaphorical bullet and booked my flights to Bahrain. I waited as long as I could to see how the situation played out, and following the confirmation yesterday from Bernie, the teams and the Bahrainis that the event would actually be going ahead as planned, I took the plunge and made my booking.

Now there shouldn’t be any real surprise in this, should there? You can see the headline – Random Bloke in Does His Job Shock. But many of us in the media have been questioning whether or not we would or even should be attending the race.

I was one of very few media to be in Bahrain during the original risings in February last year, as I was present in Bahrain for the GP2 Asia race weekend that never took place. Following the events of those few days, I have to admit that the thought of going back had filled me with some dread. It’s not that I dislike Bahrain. I don’t. I have always enjoyed going there and have always enjoyed going to the Bahrain International Circuit. And with the exception of 2010 when the unnecessary circuit changes were made I think the track layout has lent itself, more so for GP2 than F1, to some pretty good racing too.

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The problem that we all face right now is that Formula 1 has been politicised. Whatever the sport had decided to do would have upset somebody. If the FIA had cancelled the race, then it would have sent out the message that the sport was unhappy with the way in which the ruling regime had conducted itself and that would have been seen as a tacit show of support for those rising against the ruling elite. Conversely, by not cancelling the race Formula 1 has, through no fault of its own, thus shown tacit support for the ruling elite.

Sadly, it was always going to be a case of “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

It is an impossible situation to be in, and one in which I do not envy either Bernie Ecclestone or Jean Todt. The ruling regime clearly want the Grand Prix to be a sign that things are back to normal in Bahrain, and to use it as a point of unity for the country. And I truly hope it can prove to be just that. Sport can be a healing tool for unrest, just look at the Olympics and the fact that so many nations caught up in conflicts have competed side by side with one another over the history of the games.

But an international sporting event is also a very good tool for those with an agenda to get their message out to a wide audience.

Ecclestone himself admitted just a few days ago that the Grand Prix in Bahrain could find itself at the centre of such a demonstration, but that such a vulnerability made it no different to any other Grand Prix on earth. If somebody wanted to make a scene, he said, there is little anybody could do to stop them, regardless of where we race.

Of course, Bahrain is not the only country in which we race which suffers from questionable human rights. Bahrain is also not the only country which has experienced violent unrest and death over the last 12 months… London burned last summer amidst violent protests and yet the British Grand Prix is under no threat. Yes, the London rioters were more interested in stealing a new pair of shoes than they were in fighting for democracy, but incredibly, and despite the gaping holes in the comparison, this is an argument which has been raised in support of maintaining the Bahrain Grand Prix and is thus why I bring it up here.

However, it is due to the longevity of the violence, and the continued insistence by protesters that the Grand Prix is part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, that there are still genuine fears that all will not be peaceful.

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations. February 2011

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations - February 2011

Yesterday in London, my Fleet Street colleagues were invited to a media luncheon at the Royal Automobile Club, at which the Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R Alzayani refuted the need for additional security.

“There’s no need,” he said. “You will come out and you will see — it is business as usual. There are some clashes with police, isolated in villages. Some of these clashes are very small — 10 or 15 people — but it gets blown out of proportion and made to sound as if the whole nation is rising up.”

Bernie Ecclestone himself blamed the media for inflaming the situation. “Seriously, the press should just be quiet and deal with the facts rather than make up stories.”

But the facts are, some of us are still scared.

I am still awaiting news on whether my media visa has been accepted. Without it I will not be going. Even with it, there are still fears over the safety of the media at large. Many have been detained in the Gulf state over the past 12 months and even with an F1 media visa there are no guarantees that we will not be looked upon with suspicion.

There is an allocated media hotel and media shuttles have been laid on. I will be avoiding both. It’s just too much of an obvious target for those wishing to get their message across to an international audience.

Maybe I’m getting overly worried. And I hope that I am. I hope we get out there and everything is fine, that Bahrain is the place I remember and that we have a great weekend of racing in which media, teams, drivers and fans are able to compete in and enjoy a race weekend like any other.

I hope that the Grand Prix can unite a divided nation and help to bring happiness to a country which has been put through a year of misery.

And I hope that we are able to leave after the chequered flag with happy memories of our return to Bahrain, not because the voices of the people who have been silenced since February 2011 have once again been suppressed, but because the line we have been handed about the race uniting people is one which genuinely resonates throughout Bahrain and brings people of different faiths and opposing politics together, to celebrate under the banner of sport.

BIC exit - February 2011

BIC exit - February 2011

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19 thoughts on “On Bahrain

  1. It’s good to see someone recognise that this situation is intensely political, whether the race goes ahead or not it is political. The ‘F1 should not get involved in politics so the race should go ahead’ argument does not work here because of the government’s close involvement in the staging of the race.

    However, I don’t accept the London and Bahrain comparison as valid. Not only for the reasons you mentioned, but because in London people were not getting killed and paramedics who treated the wounded were not locked up.

    Search Twitter for #bloodyf1, a hashtag created by those opposing the staging of the race. Some powerful and disturbing messages. I think this cartoon sums up the feelings of many:

    http://twitpic.com/92ifx6

    Stay safe Will.

  2. I disagree with you on multiple points. It is kind of strange to compare country with revolution happening with army involved to Olympic games or riots in UK. My view is very simple, for security sake I will red flag this race. Simple rule is: if it is not safe, safety car or red flag are the options. Seeing tanks on the way to BIC should bring red flag. But I guess something must happen until people accept that this country is not safe. Another simple rule is to ask question: Will I go on vacation to this country? I will not. I will however like to spend more time in London or anywhere in UK. Those are my 20 cents…

    • I understand your reservations. I must state however, that as the caption explains, the image of tanks on the way to the BIC was taken the last time I was in Bahrain, in February 2011.

    • To be honest mate I am undecided. I am due to fly home after the Grand Prix and do the second GP2 weekend from Biggin Hill. But if everything out in Bahrain goes off without incident, I may consider staying out for the second weekend.

  3. I wish there was the same pressure on China as there is Bahrain. Human rights are abused just as awful in some cases. Just because everything appears to be fine doesn’t mean that it is.

    Mixing sport and politics is always dangerous, but it should remain consistent.

    Great work Will- you’re the best.

    Taber
    Wilmington, Delaware

  4. I have been an F1 fan for 35+ years, but unfortunately, an F1 event is not an affordable event to attend for so many of the aggrieved Bahraini protestors, so thinking that it can be used “as a point of unity for the country” is really almost laughable, unless the ruling monarchy decides to subsidize ticket sales.

    Let’s face it, this is a bad PR move for F1, and just further plays to the image of extravagance, expense and excess of the sport. The only reason Bernie Ecclestone has organized this event is for the money. It isn’t as if there weren’t other venues they could have put on the calender instead but he decided didn’t bend over backwards enough, such as Turkey or France for example. And we’ve seen how boring the races have been in Bahrain, so that just further makes the case to not race there from a sporting standpoint.

    I’m very disappointed this race is happening.

  5. “but because the line we have been handed about the race uniting people is one which genuinely resonates throughout Bahrain and brings people of different faiths and opposing politics together, to celebrate under the banner of sport. ”

    I think that is a little too idealistic and far-fetched. Formula 1 is an elite sport. I don’t think in most of the countries it has gone to recently, a lot of people are even aware of or follow the race.

    With the kind of deep ethnic and religious differences in Bahrain, a F1 race is going to polarise the situation, not unite people.

    The situation in Bahrain is not normal. Given the politically disturbed situation should F1 take the risk of going there?
    Surely the protestors are going to do something dramatic with the world’s media there to capture attention.

    During Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Delhi this week, a Tibetan protestor set fire to himself and died, to precisely do that.

    If something like that happened wouldn’t F1 have blood on its hands.

    Simple logic, F1 cancelled last year’s race because of the political situation. Without the situation returning to normal, why are they going back?

    • I feel where you are coming from, I really do. And I think that’s why we still fear going. The problem is that last year the Bahraini’s cancelled, thus taking the decision out of the FIA / Bernie’s hands. This year they have not done so.

      • The injustices and inequities of this world is not going to begin or end with an F1 race.
        For everybody’s sake lets hope its incident free and everything goes off peacefully. Safe Travels!!

        • I agree with Sudhas remarks i am also worried that some protesters might be so determed that they put their & other peoples lives at risk.I believe & feel that something is going to happen,security or no security.After all thi is live tv.Many people including journalists have been pressured into going which i think is wrong.The only reason Bernie has not pulled out is money.If anything does happen i hope he is man enough to stand up and say he was wrong and take the blame, but i doubt it and hope for all our sakes that everybody comes home safely.F1 looks very bad in going to Bahrain and would look so much worse if there is any sort of incident.Take care everyone

  6. Its easy for people who aren’t in Bahrain and follow what the so called media says to comment on Bahrain. I’m not a local and I’ve been living in Bahrain for the last 5 years. I’ve seen it go bad when certain “sects” encouraged by external political links fight and “protest” by sending their kids out to the streets. We missed out on the F1 last year. Its something that everyone in Bahrain looks out for with a passion. This year we’re excited that its coming again but again you have people who’d like to spread false information, bring out certain angles, misquote, or take things out of context just because it makes their new more spectacular! The situation is beyond normal. The people are united against the negative influence of media chasing a quick buck rather than the truth!

    The race will be SUPER! Its going to be exciting! Its going to be fun filled!

    Check out http://www.unified.com.bh for all the events happening around the event! We cant wait for the race to happen!!!! We hope to see you all here in Bahrain!

  7. Greetings.

    An interesting exchange of views.

    The fact that the ruling family of Bahrain want F1 to convince the watching public that the status quo has been resumed is worrying.
    The facts are is that it clearly has not been resumed and many Bahrani inhabitants are clearly still aggrieved.
    The decision to cancel last year was right and the decision to can 2012 is also the right decision.

    Don’t say we didn’t warn you Bernie.

  8. I disagree that not going will necessary seem as political. The F1 guys can easily shove it under the rack with reasons of security and insurance instead of having no wish to visit Bahrain because of it’s regime. And it’s logical too since we are talking about possible trouble by people looking to spread a message.
    F1 can easily say we can afford such trouble so we won’t come just yet.

    On the other hand by saying that it’s going and especially using “to unite the people” excuse then the sport puts itself in a clear political position since it wants to play the political role of a unifier.

    Clearly F1 didn’t chose based on staying out of politics but based on pressure from the Bahrain royal family. Bernie didn’t want to piss them off by letting the race get cancelled a second time and lose all the potential benefits of cooperating with them.
    All this about “damn if you do and damn if don’t” are nothing but hot air.
    There is a clear non political position and that is that F1 can’t go until it’s absolutely certain of the smooth operation of the event.

  9. I had a customer where I work going out to Bahrain for St Patricks Day. A short holiday about which she had no concerns for her safety at all.
    I think, once a state funds a race, you’re going to get into difficult ground politically because then the state is being represented by that race. However Will’s blog would suggest that both ‘sides’ are using the arrival of the F1 circus to their own ends. The fact that he fears physical attack from the ‘oppressed’ side so that they can create an international incident is equally a problem as the incidents of government violence, surely?
    My feeling is, if you want to hear the issues from the mouths of those experiencing them, you should use both this and the WEC race as a platform for really free speech (I know the journos feel they will be kept penned away from protestors but you can interview your taxi driver or your cleaner etc). You can come back and say everything seemed good or you can come back and say, you saw lots of oppression or you were so penned in, you can only assume there was something to hide. If you feel strongly about the isssues, give them a voice.
    However it’s important to remember that everyone has an agenda. During the IRA terrrorist campaign, an outsider might have felt very similarly about coming to the UK as someone might feel about going to Bahrain today (even without F1 being sponsored by the state).
    My own personal opinion is that violence is never the answer so anyone resorting to it has lost their argument, regardless of which side they are on or how badly they are treated. However unfortunately violence sells the news and that maybe is the biggest problem of all.

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