Bahrain – Latest Thoughts

7 Feb

Since last writing about Bahrain I’ve been continuing to keep a close eye on what has been going on in the Middle East, and a story published by the Washington Post has inspired me to write about it again today.

For those who wish to read the story it can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/us-must-bring-pressure-to-bear-on-bahrain/2012/02/06/gIQA8OK7uQ_story.html, otherwise read on for a summary.

The Washington Post has criticised the US Government for an inconsistent approach to its foreign policy in the Middle East. The US Government has criticised Russia and China for blocking the United Nations Security Council taking action against Syria, where the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Russia and China have ‘interests’ in Syria so it would be inconvenient for them to agree to a motion which would upset their allies. The US Government has a major interest (and influence) in Bahrain, which serves as a regional base for the US Naval fleet. The situation in Bahrain, whilst still volatile, is not as severe as the scenes we’re currently seeing in Syria. However, if the situation in Bahrain were to deteriorate you could pretty safely bet your bottom dollar that the US would block any UN Security Council action against there – it would be far too inconvenient to upset the Bahrainis. The US State Department don’t even appear to be using their influence in Bahrain to encourage reform. It is a real shame that the leaders of the free world don’t feel compelled to use their influence in this way.

The situation in Syria continues to overshadow events in Bahrain, making the country appear relatively peaceful. This won’t be helping anyone (yours truly included) hoping to see the Bahrain race cancelled.

In the past couple of days there’s been further snippets from the F1 paddock on whether or not the F1 race should go ahead this year. Lotus F1 team chairman Gerard Lopez has said that he is happy for F1 to go to Bahrain in 2012 “if things are looking good”, and stated that “a number of guarantees have been given about how things will run”. Gerard Lopez is a close ally of Bernie Ecclestone, and given Bernie’s financial interest in the race to go ahead I am inevitably cynical about Lopez’s impartiality.

The concept of guarantees being given about how things will run while F1 is Bahrain makes me extremely uncomfortable. It is not known what these guarantees are, but I suspect they are likely to relate to two things:

  • Safety of F1 personnel – this would likely relate to the provision of security escorts for personnel moving between the circuit and their hotels.
  • Treatment of demonstrators in the build up to, and while F1 is in, Bahrain – with treatment of protesters being the prime concern of the outside world, the government would need to guarantee the FIA that no protesters would be treated ‘excessively’ by the police or other government forces, while keeping everyone safe.

The only other circuit where security has been provided to teams is in Interlagos, after the experience of Jenson Button in 2010. If security is needed then the situation isn’t truly stable and safety can’t be completely guaranteed; an argument for not attending. It is inevitable that some demonstrations will take place while F1 is in Bahrain; any attempt to prevent protests, or indeed any attempt to give an artificial image to the outside world that Bahrain isn’t cracking down on protesters, would be farcical, and again an argument for not attending. I will be interested to see if details of these guarantees emerge.

One other sound bite from Lopez was that “using a sport to provide a political message is wrong”. This is a divisive issue, and I can understand both sides of the argument. Personally, I feel that sport is an effective way of providing a political message and would support anyone who felt they could not participate in a sporting event for political reasons.

Previous high profile political messages in sport have included boycotts by certain national teams of the Olympic Games not wishing to compete against other national teams associated with something unpleasant, or the exclusion of national teams from competitions like the Rugby World Cup – in both cases, apartheid South Africa was the most significant recent example. Political messages exercised through rugby were particularly effective. There are no Bahraini’s participating in Formula 1, so we need to look at cases where boycotts have taken place in relation to the location of the event rather than the participants. South Africa is also an example of where teams have boycotted a race due to an unpleasant regime. The 1985 South African Grand Prix was boycotted by the Ligier and Renault teams, in line with French foreign policy. The Brazilian Government tried unsuccessfully to prevent Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna from racing due to sanctions they had imposed against South Africa. Likewise, there has long been a ban on many national teams playing cricket in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has been suspended from the Commonwealth and long been subject to international sanctions.

While governments, like the United States Government, continue to avoid imposing sanctions (or even commit to UN resolutions), it continues to be difficult for the FIA to justify not going to Bahrain. I think it is increasingly likely that the FIA will confirm that the race will go ahead, which will leave individual teams, drivers and suppliers to decide whether to compromise chances of glory in the championship in order ease their consciences.

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