If there is any debate in Formula 1 circles about whether the Bahrain Grand Prix should go ahead in April, it is happening behind closed doors. The only public statements thus far have all been either in favour of the event happening, or neutral. It seems that no-one wants to speak out and say what an awful lot of people in the business are thinking.
My view remains the same. F1 needs to think very carefully about what there is to be gained and what there is to be lost by hosting a race this year in Bahrain. The sport will happily return to Bahrain in the future if the political situation is settled and there are no risks involved, but it makes very little sense for F1 to put its head into the mouth of a lion when it does not need to do so.
Yes, there might be some financial loss from not going to Bahrain, but going to Bahrain might also result in financial losses as not all the sport’s sponsors want to be associated with the troubles there. One way or another holding a race in Bahrain is an overt gesture of support for the government. It is no good pretending that sport is above politics, or simply part of the healing process, because there is no question that Bahrain’s desire to hold a race is a way in which Bahrain can try to show the world that all is well. Knowing that this is the case, the opposition (however big or small it is) is bound to try to use the event to spread its message around the world. And the government is bound to try to stop that happening.
The FIA Statutes say that the federation shall “refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect”. One can argue about what this means, but it is far better not to have to have that argument. It is better for F1 not to take any risk that does not need to be taken.
While the authorities might be able to secure the race track and stop unwanted visitors, it is almost impossible for them to guarantee the safety of all F1 people. In recent weeks an organisation called the 14 February Youth Coalition has circulated a letter to foreigners in the country, warning them to leave the country and accusing them of working as mercenaries and attacking anti-government protesters. There have been attacks. In the last few days these have been confirmed by the Interior Ministry, which has naturally condemned such actions.
“Attacks on the expatriates and members of the foreign communities are unacceptable by any standard,” said Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Bin Abdullah Al Khalifa. “They are against all religions and conventions and clash with Islam’s values and tolerance and Bahrain’s traditions in dealing with various peoples.”
The condemnation follows attacks on Peter Morrisey, a British man who had two fingers chopped off with a sword. He also suffered fractured ribs. He is reported to have been assaulted by a group of people in a village to the west of Manama. Earlier an Indian was attacked in Manama itself.
Such activities may be condemned by the authorities and some of the opposition, but the opposition is clearly not one single unified body but rather a range of groups some who are working with the government, and some that are more extreme and are stirring up trouble on the streets. One group of anti-government campaigners have decided to create a makeshift “Freedom Square” on a piece of land on the outskirts of Manama. The aim of this is to try to create a focal point for the protests, in the run up to the first anniversary of the troubles. The original focal point was the Pearl Roundabout, which is now off-limits, although some protesters say that they will march there on the 14th.
Elsewhere, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the authorities to allow journalists into the country to carry out their work freely. it said that at least six journalists has had their visa applications refused. They had applied in order to cover the February 14 anniversary. They were told the rejections were due to a “high volume of requests” and that they should re-apply after February. Among those refused visas were two reporters from the New York Times, one from the Christian Science Monitor, one from the BBC, one from The Wall Street Journal and one from Al-Jazeera.
“Bahraini authorities act as if they have something to hide by engaging in this crude form of censorship,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, a spokesman for CPJ. “The government should immediately reverse its decision and allow international news media to observe and report on the anniversary.”
The CPJ said that it has documented the deaths of two journalists in government custody, in addition to dozens of detentions, physical assaults, deportations, and government-sponsored smearing of journalists, among other violations.
The desire to hold the race is better understood when one sees how the Bahrain economy has been suffering from the troubles. A report by the Bahrain Four Star Hotel Owners Association says that the 27 hotels in the group have lost nearly $80 million in the last year, as reservations have halved. The association chairman Abdulhameed Al Halwachi said that there have also been losses in the food and beverage industry and with serviced apartments.
“Hotels had been suffering in several ways even before that but in the last year things have gone from bad to worse. Now, with another February 14 approaching very few people, if any, are coming to Bahrain,” he said. “The hotel occupancy level has fallen significantly with an average rate of 50 per cent at the moment. We have had bad moments and have recovered but the situation is still critical. We have to rebuild the trust and confidence (in Bahrain) so that more and more people come here.”
He blamed the drop in visitors on the “negative impact of the Western media’s misinformation”.
Whether attacking the messengers is the smartest way to get them to support Bahrain is a point worthy of discussion. Thus far no-one has explained why respected global news organisations would want to attack Bahrain, as there is nothing to be gained from being critical of the policies of a government that is upholding Western interests in the region – unless they deserve to be criticised.