Back in Bahrain…

4 Sep

It is hard to believe that it has been five months since the F1 paddock was making its controversial visit to Bahrain. The race made world headlines for all the wrong reasons, but it temporarily reminded us that Bahrain has not yet followed other countries in the MENA region on the path to democracy. Since then F1 and the mass media attention have left the Bahraini troubles behind them and moved on to other races and other stories. Meanwhile, little has changed back in Bahrain.

One of the key names the media focussed on back in April was Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a human rights protester who had embarked on a hunger strike to protest the life sentence he was given in response to his role in the 2011 protests in Bahrain (which led to the F1 race that year being cancelled). Al-Khawaja ended his hunger strike in May, and along with others had appealed his sentence.

Today, an appeals court in Bahrain ruled that the convictions  of al-Khawaja and his fellow protesters were to be upheld. You can read the story on the BBC website here.

Of particular interest is Frank Gardner’s (the BBC’s Security Correspondent) analysis of the situation: “The decision by a Bahraini civil court to uphold verdicts handed down last year by a military court on 20 activists sends a tough message to the opposition. Bahrain’s government and ruling family have now drawn a red line on how far they are prepared to compromise. There had been speculation, following King Hamad’s visit to the UK last month, that serious dialogue could resume between the Sunni monarchy and the Shia-dominated opposition. That dialogue has not progressed and now these verdicts will delight hardliners in the government camp and depress moderates in the opposition. Despite numerous reforms, Bahrain is still being criticised for its human rights record.”

It is hard to predict how things will now progress (if at all) in Bahrain, but if the government are going to take a tougher position with pro-democracy campaigners,  progress is likely to stagnate further and F1 cannot expect to find an improved, let alone resolved, situation when they return in 2013. The event will again be a chance for campaigners to (rightly, IMHO) capitalise on the publicity the race attracts and remind the world again of their cause.

The 2013 provisional F1 calendar has not yet been released, but when it is there is little doubt that Bahrain will feature on it as the circuit still has a contract with Bernie Ecclestone. When the calendar appears, F1 will once again face its moral dilemma over Bahrain. After the tensions witnessed in 2012 (and the negative press) teams will be again be reluctant to return if tensions are still high, but of course they will be contractually obliged to go.

The 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix’s controversial slogan.

The best F1 can hope for is that organisers do not try to exploit the race for international political gain as they did in 2012 with the farcical ‘UniF1ed’ slogan. Another heavily politicised race can only be bad news for the sport. We shall have to wait and see how things unfold in the next six months.

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