Bahrain & F1: The Wider Issues

Bahrain & F1: The Wider Issues

Multiple media outlets have covered and summarised the current situation in Bahrain. To put it extremely succinctly, at heart the issue is one of governing authority and human rights. Note that whilst it’s important to appreciate and know about the events that transpired, they directly are not related to F1. Neither can F1 have any direct decision influence on the current matter. I feel it’s important to highlight this distinction early on. The issue here is not of the political situation in Bahrain and whether you approve/disapprove, it’s specifically if Formula One should visit Bahrain.

Let’s review the broad reaction following FIA’s decision to hold the grand prix:

The Guardian – Bloodshed feared as Bahrain Formula One grand prix given go-ahead

Amnesty International – Bahrain: Reforms risk appearing hollow as violations continue

New York Times – A Great Show in China, a Lingering Cloud Over Bahrain

Mail Online – Formula One should forget the money and pull out of Bahrain

Here’s a reaction from today, the experiences of Byron Young, a F1 journalist describing the state just a few miles outside Sakhir, where the track is located.

Mirror – Teargas, petrol bombs and riot police: How MirrorSport’s Byron Young escaped the violence in Bahrain

To get it out straight away: my personal opinion isn’t that the Bahrain Grand Prix 2012 should not go forward. It’s more than that. I feel it should have never been on the 2012 racing calendar in the first place. The gravitas of the issue doesn’t escape me. There are millions of dollars of race revenue and a tricky political issue of empowering a government in the balance, all built upon the pedestal of human rights and the events of the year before. The stakes are certainly high and whilst I certainly can’t analyse the all of the multiple, complex issues at hand, I’ll address two of them.

F1′s Political Capital

Lots of people when addressing the issue of Bahrain first think about the safety of the people involving in running the sport we love. I agree, safety is paramount and it’s importance cannot be overstated. However, there are wider and broader issues at play here. The basic crux comes down to political legitimacy and empowerment. By holding the grand prix, the F1 community with it’s considerable political capital is legitimising the Bahraini royal autocracy. We are giving our “stamp of approval” to the current state of affairs and the royal family who are responsible for the advent of this state. Why so? The grand prix was a national objective, initiated and built entirely by ruling monarchy. This is important to note because the citizens of Bahrain view the grand prix as a ‘national’ event and associate it strongly with the ruling royal family that were responsible for the events of last year. For the Bahraini on the street who doesn’t follow F1, the grand prix is synonymous with the royal family.

This picture, taken just yesterday gives an admittedly one sided polarised view of the proposed race, but the fact remains that a big billboard promoting the race on the main highway was brought down in flames.

Let’s consider F1′s associated political capital. Political capital is a term that basically means weight of power or influence politically. For F1 , it’s political capital is crucial and vital. It’s been earned over decades of work by multiple power parties at the top, entrusted with handling of the sport. It’s been earned by the way F1 was the first international sport to both take place after 9/11 in USA and the 2011 Tsuami disaster in Japan. It’s been earned over decades of careful, positive decisions. Why is it so important?

  1. It’s the reason why the ruling parties of countries such as Malaysia, China and Bahrain itself want grand prix. It’s why these countries build a race track and pay high fees to F1 authorities to hold a race. Being associated with F1 is seen in a positive light. It shows the country is “progressive” or “friendly” (in the case of Bahrain). The country wants F1.
  2. Russia, China and Singapore… all countries with significant economic and political capital want to be a part of the F1 circus. France and Argentina) want to get back on the race calendar. The French Grand Prix became a political agenda in the French presidential election!
  3. The significant political capital is the reason why there seems to be a gold rush right now for countries fighting for a grand prix. It’s why the calendar is ever expanding to this year a record 20 races all around the world.

Formula One is more politically intertwined than golf or any other sport. There’s a saying and belief sports and politics should not mix. I believe that saying doesn’t hold true for Formula One because of it’s political capital in my reasoning outlined above. To sum it all up, the crown prince himself “wants Bahrain to emerge F1 winner” and propagate the #uniF1ed message. It’s exceedingly clear beyond any doubt that F1 is political.

Now that we’ve established F1′s political nature, it’s important to consider the weight of the “stamp of approval” it’s giving the country & it’s regime. As we all know, the grand prix was cancelled last year, predominantly due to safety and insurance concerns. How are conditions now compared to a year ago? Amnesty International released a report just last week stating -

“With the world’s eyes on Bahrain as it prepares to host the Grand Prix, no-one should be under any illusions that the country’s human rights crisis is over.” – Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director

The report is worth reading and state’s what I’ve been arguing – “Holding the Grand Prix in Bahrain in 2012 risks being interpreted by the government of Bahrain as symbolizing a return to business as usual,”. If things from a political and humanitarian perspective haven’t improved, business clearly hasn’t returned back to normal. Instead of serving as a positive symbol of returning peace to the region, the grand prix can be easily portrayed as negative event turning a blind eye to the tough political situation. Because of it’s political capital, it can be used by the royal regime as a false symbolism of things returning to normal. The Grand Prix can be viewed as ignorant rich boys & sponsoring corporations playing with fast and extensive toys burning ridiculous-p-a-liter petrol for the sake of entertainment whist empowering & false symbolising an oppressive regime turning a blind eye to atrocities down the street.

This false symbolism can prove to be very damaging to the very political nature of F1. It’s damaging to the positive political capital it’s garnered over decades. Note throughout this argument I have not address the success or failure of the grand prix. It’s irrelevant. The symbolism of just it taking place is enough.

To read more on the complexities this issue, I recommend this article: ‘Bahrain decision puts F1 in a lose-lose position’.

F1 Fan’s Dilemma

To put things on a lighter note, away from the heavy political stuff that I’ve picked on from my university debating, let’s consider the situation from the perspective of a humble F1 fan who loves the sport & doesn’t want to get involved into political argument.

We’ve had an unbelievable start to the season with the closest grid we’ve seen in years. The quality of the racing really speaks for itself and we can’t get enough of it. There are lots of fans with strong personal opinions on either sides over the race; some want it to go ahead and some don’t. That’s the beauty of personal opinion, if justified, it’s just as “right” as a contrary personal opinion. People’s personal opinion differs and this opens up room for meaningful debate and discourse.

The dilemma is this: can we fans enjoy the grand prix knowing the political backdrop and false symbolism it can be manipulated for? Will there be a bit of guilt back in our minds as we cheer our favourite driver’s to the podium knowing full well few miles away there is a backdrop of protests based on human rights and military action on a regime against it’s citizens? There isn’t a clear, right answer nor one I will argue for, it’s entirely personal opinion. It’s just some food for thought.

If the grand prix didn’t go ahead no doubt there would have been a few arden petrol-head racing fans disappointed with the fact they’ll have to deal with a month without any F1, as if the 3 weeks break before China wasn’t bad enough. That’s also a small reason as to why I argue the grand prix should never have been on the calendar in the first place, to save us F1 fans from ourselves. To stop us from guilt-tripping ourselves for matters completely outside our control and our hand.

In this incredibly long article I’ve argued the importance of F1′s political capital, highlighted the current state in Bahrain and put the two together to highlight the problems it poses. I’ve also light heartedly in the end addressed the issue from the viewpoint of an F1 fan who just wants to see more of the incredible racing we’ve seen so far. It’s important to appreciate that whilst we have absolutely no control over these crucial, complex decisions, we do all have a right to personal opinion and free speech. This was my take on the issue, I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.

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  • Ben Lambert

    I guess the question is if we should boycott it as fans, avoid watching it and certainly avoid watching it on Iplayer afterwards. I must admit on this my view is mixed, tempting to side with ‘what can one man do?’ while acknowleding that ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’. We cannot stop or slow the oppression personally, but if the BBC, Sky, FIA and all those who run F1 were to look over viewing figures after the even and find it was greatly reduced, they may think twice about going back next year (or at least say no to Assad if he comes knocking.) I guess the main hope this weekend has to be that there is no loss of life around Bahrain: with petrol bombs already hitting the Force India team ( http://bbc.in/HVgOAo ) I’m less than confident this will happen.