It is clear that Bahrain understands the need to try to rebuild its battered international image, following the apparently brutal repression that occurred there in February and March, when demonstrators asked for more democracy. Part of this process appears to be to try to convince the Formula 1 world – which played a key role in creating Bahrain’s former friendly image – that it wants to be associated with the kingdom. The sport needs to be very careful not to put itself into a position where it is being used to create the wrong impression. Some might even argue that this is what has already been done and F1 should steer clear of falling for the same thing twice.
The Bahrain authorities blame the international media for its new image, claiming that reporting of the protests was unfair. News organisation we have spoken to say that this is rubbish and that all they were doing was telling the story as it happened. Blaming the media is never a good step and tends to create bad feeling among the people who are creating images, and thus by going down this path Bahrain may be creating more problems than it is solving.
There was undoubtedly some pretty amateur propaganda coming out of Iran, in an effort to stir up trouble, but most of that was obvious. It is much harder to explain online video of police shooting demonstrators in cold blood and stories of torture, protesters have been sentenced to death, the arrest and trials of prominent mainstream opposition politicians, the jailing of medical staff, not to mention the recent purging of people from state-controlled businesses, particularly when the state-run news agency has reported that Bahrain Petroleum Co has fired nearly 300 employees for being absent from work when pro-democracy protests paralysed much of the kingdom.
The Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa says that 23 doctors and 24 nurses will be put on trial on charges and claims that there is “hard evidence” to show that the Salmaniya Medical Complex was used extensively for the activities of saboteurs who sought to spread chaos, cause disruptions and troubles and create sedition within the kingdom. The opposition claims that the medical staff are being silenced to stop them revealing some of the atrocities that they claim occurred.
The Pearl Roundabout, that was occupied by protesters until it was cleared by the security forces, has been given the catchy new name of Gulf Cooperation Council Roundabout and the large elegant statue of a pearl has been demolished in an effort to stop it being used as a symbol for the protest movement.
Elsewhere theChristian Science Monitor, a multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning publication, known for its balanced reporting of the Middle East, says that the government has bulldozed dozens of mosques as part of a crackdown on Shiite dissidents, calling this “an assault on human rights that is breathtaking in its expansiveness”.
The government’s arguments are often rather difficult to accept. The head of the country’s armed forces has recently come up with the incredible theory that “young people were given pills which affected their minds and made them do unusual things” during the protests.
The country says that the state of emergency will end on June 1 but the army chief says that the armed forces from the GCC Peninsula Shield will remain in Bahrain “in anticipation of any foreign threat” and he warned that “to those who did not get the message, if you return we will come back stronger this time.” That does not just sound like a threat, it is a threat.
Bahraini opposition leaders pleaded not guilty in court on Thursday to charges of belonging to a terrorist group and attempting to overthrow the monarchy. Fourteen out of the 21 defendants appeared before a special court. Other defendants have left the country and are being tried in absentia.
Foreign governments are being decidedly wary of Bahrain’s claims.
“We continue to urge the Government of Bahrain to meet all its human rights obligations and uphold political freedoms, equal access to justice and the rule of law,” said the British Foreign Office. “Those who have been detained should now have full access to the due process of law. The Government of Bahrain should also take swift, concrete steps to carry out the investigations into alleged abuses by Bahraini security forces to which it has already committed.
“The announcement by His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, that the State of National Safety in Bahrain will be removed on 1 June, is potentially a welcome step towards achieving longer term stability. We look forward to the practical actions that will support this move. The Bahrain Government’s recent announcement on accelerating the investigation into deaths in detention and ensuring accountability for any wrongdoing is also welcome.”
It is worth noting that there is a sound reason why Bahrain wants to re-establish its image as quickly as possible. InterContinental Hotels Group has warned its shareholders that it expects recent events in the Middle East, Japan and New Zealand to negatively impact estimated full-year operating profits, citing “significant declines” in revenues in Bahrain, where it operates two properties, and Egypt, where there was also civil unrest. In short, the number of visitors to Bahrain has dropped significantly.
The key question is really whether or not the teams and sponsors involved in Formula 1 wish to be associated with the country, and whether or not the Bahrain authorities can guarantee that the event will go ahead without civil disorder breaking out and that there will be no physical threat to visitors, from the protesters or from the government.
Looking from the outside, it seems that trying to rush a return to Bahrain this year might suit the government there and might be easier for some in F1 because of contractual complications, but it would probably be wiser not to take any risks and wait to see how Bahrain looks in six months from now, when the F1 calendar for 2012 is being finalised.
Going back too early involves a lot of risks that are probably not worth taking.