Bahrain Grand Prix: Keeping Eyes on the Track

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A man walks past anti-Formula One graffiti in the village of Barbar, west of Manama 5 April 2012. The graffiti reads, "Boycott F1 in Bahrain, you will race on the blood of martyrs." (Photo: REUTERS - Hamad I Mohammed)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Sunday, April 15, 2012

The 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix, set for April 20-22, is branded under the slogan “Unif1ed: One Nation in Celebration” in an attempt to portray this sporting event as part of a national reconciliation process. However, the racing event has inescapably become part of a divisive, growing struggle between pro- and anti-government forces over the future of the tiny island nation since the onset of the Bahraini uprising.

Recently, the Bahraini government has been put on the defensive in regards to a jailed Bahrain activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is currently in critical condition due to a hunger strike that has surpassed 66 days in protest at his, and other political activists’, continued imprisonment.

Al-Khawaja’s fate has become a rallying cry for protesters, with much of the discontent directed toward the Grand Prix.

‘A Significant National Event’

On February 19, during the week marking the one-year anniversary of the 2011 Bahraini uprising that has cost the lives of more than 80 civilians, Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni sent a letter to the chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), Zayed al-Zayani, voicing his support for plans to host the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Bassiouni’s statement is perceived to hold weight because of his position as head of the independent commission of inquiry appointed by the ruling royal family to investigate events in the early days of the Bahraini uprising. The commission released a report last fall, which highlighted significant human rights abuses committed by security forces and offered recommendations for a political solution.

In the letter, he wrote: "The Grand Prix is a significant national event, which is of great interest to a substantial percentage of the population and all of its communities. It is, therefore, an event of deserved national pride, which you have used in this year's launching as a way of promoting national healing and reconciliation.

“Aside from the economic, publicity, and public relations advantages that the Grand Prix brings to Bahrain, it is, on this one-year anniversary of the February/March events of last year, an important point of departure for the people of Bahrain to forge ahead in their national efforts toward reconciliation.”

This letter exhibits the essential justification put forward by the Bahraini government, Formula One organizers such as F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone, and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), that the decision to reinstate the Bahrain Grand Prix “reflects the spirit of reconciliation in Bahrain.”

Nabeel Rajab, an activist and head of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, spoke to Al-Akhbar by phone and bluntly rejected the assertion.

“There should be a political process for reconciliation, not through F1 [events],” he said. “We still have hundreds of people detained and tortured on a daily basis. There are more troops, more mercenaries, [and] more arms coming into Bahrain. And you tell me F1 will help?”

The activist emphasized that hosting the racing event completely disrespects the victims of the unrest, including F1 staff [in Bahrain] who were “systematically tortured inside the racing premises itself.”

“The head of security for racing tracks supervised the torture, he was directly responsible and he still works there. This is a wrong message to send to those who were tortured and their families,” he added.

Rajab’s position against the Grand Prix was echoed by others in Bahrain, including the largest oppositional political party, al-Wefaq.

An al-Wefaq MP, Mattar Ebrahim, told Al-Akhbar, "This acceptance [of the Grand Prix] represents an ignoring of human rights violations, which is still ongoing in Bahrain. The unrest is ongoing in Bahrain. The violations mentioned in the BICI report still exist, and this requires international attention instead of its dismissal."

The Half Billion Dollar Factor

Undeniably, there is much money to be made by hosting the Bahraini Grand Prix. Ever since it was first introduced in 2004, revenues have grown exponentially. The last time Bahrain hosted the event in 2010, it reportedly raked in around US$300 million.

This year, the BIC Chief Executive and Crown Prince of Bahrain Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa predicted that the revenues for BIC alone in hosting the Grand Prix will reach US$500 million. The US$500 million figure does not take into account the lucrative television broadcast rights – that draws about 100 million viewers from 187 countries – or the revenue generated by a large influx of tourists and other associated industries.

Despite the Grand Prix’s growing profits since 2004, many of the income levels of the local Bahraini populace have not been radically altered in real terms, with poverty still being one of the key issues driving the protests.

The Grand Prix is an event that the many average Bahrainis cannot afford to enjoy..

Ticket prices presented by the BIC range from a minimum of 40 Bahraini dinars (about US$110) to as high as BHD 180 (around US$480) per person, depending on the seating and days selected.

The Labour Market Regulatory Authority in Bahrain (LMRA) reported that the 2011 average wage for a Bahraini worker is marked at around 698 BHD (US$1,850) per month, with the median wage marked at 449 BHD (around $US 1,200).

The Bahrain government denies that extreme poverty exists in the country. Conversely, the LMRA reported in its Bahrain Economic Quarterly assessment for the third quarter of 2011, that 21.9 percent of the total Bahraini households – about 27,177 households – are earning an income below the poverty line.

Engines Revving

Plans against the major sporting event are already in motion.

International civic groups and local human rights and political organizations have initiated a number of non-violent campaigns, to pressure various racing teams to boycott the Grand Prix while members of the UK-Bahrain All-Party Parliamentary Group in the UK have called on the FIA to cancel the event.

Various anti-government organizations in Bahrain have announced “three days of rage” during the Grand Prix to use the high-profile event as an opportunity to spotlight the on-going problems in the country.

Moreover, a number of Bahraini youth groups have threatened to directly target Formula 1 and its organizers, particularly if al-Khawaja does die in captivity.

“The Coalition Youth of 14 February Revolution” posted a statement on their Facebook account advising organizers not to go forward with their plans and have absolved themselves “from any responsibility for the violent reaction that can/will occur.”

The Coalition Youth group added that such potential violence “[is] due to the emotional provocation that this will cause the Bahraini people who are living under occupation, and who are in the midst of a popular revolution and heavy disturbances.”

Another group, “Rebels Race Bahrain,” has routinely been releasing warnings on its twitter account, including plans to blow up gas cylinders within cars. They have gone as far as burning a bus to buttress the seriousness of their threats.

More ominously, an unknown group has uploaded a YouTube video depicting F1 toy racing cars being set on fire and blown up.

‘No Dramas’

Last December, during an interview with The Guardian, Bernie Eccelstone brushed off concerns regarding instability in Bahrain. He explained, “We pulled out of South Africa years ago (in 1985) because of apartheid. I witnessed things that had happened there which upset me. I thought: 'That ain't the way to go on.' I hope we go to Bahrain and there's no trouble – the race goes on, the public are happy and there are no dramas. That's what I hope."

For his part, the BIC chairman al-Zayani expressed immense anger over what he called “armchair observers” and “scaremongering tactics of certain small extremist groups on social networking sites” which “has created huge misconceptions about the current situation.”

Despite concerns expressed by drivers and team members regarding security and the merits of the Bahrain Grand Prix, the FIA announced on Friday that the organization was “satisfied that all the proper security measures are in place” and that the Grand Prix will go ahead.

The latest FIA announcement has been met with outrage by various organizations in Bahrain.

Alaa Shehabi, founder of the Bahrain Watch website which tracks the implementation of reforms announced by the government, called the go-ahead “a provocation to the victims [of the Bahraini Uprising]” and said it would lead to “a huge clamp down on protests.”

Shehabi pointed out that much of the debate surrounding the Grand Prix focused on the drivers’ safety and ignored the plight of Bahrainis facing repression from the government.

The FIA and the F1 organizers have made a decision regarding the sporting event that seems more responsive to the dictates of profits rather than one shaped by “the spirit of national reconciliation.”


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