I’m on the plane home to Paris and, frankly, I am happy to be there. We have passed a fascinating few days in Bahrain. It was a race meeting the like of which I have not seen in nearly 30 years of reporting. I’ve done a lot stuff in that time, but this was above and beyond. Most foreign journalists are currently barred from entering Bahrain, because the government feels that their coverage of its activities has been deeply biased. I see the latest reports saying that some people from Channel 4 in England have been arrested, for filming when they entered the country on tourist visas. I have no sympathy for them. They made a decision and they were breaking the law.
Before I went to Bahrain I thought very differently about the troubles there. I was very critical of the decision for F1 to go there. The powers-that-be in the sport did not like that. The Bahrainis tried to convince me otherwise, but I felt that the race was being used as a propaganda tool and should not be allowed to go ahead, on the basis that the FIA statutes state 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”. I was invited over the winter to go to Bahrain, all expenses paid by the government, to see for myself. I declined because I could not see the point. Bahrain on a quiet day was not going to be the same as Bahrain when the F1 circus comes to town. It was obvious. I also felt there was a danger of being given a huge snow-job.
I have always respected the work of the newsagencies. When Bernie Ecclestone questioned some of the things that I had written, in a nice way, in the period leading up to the race I explained to him that newsagency folk “do not make this stuff up. They are the best reporters there are and it is not easy to pull the wool over their eyes. There is no reason for them to be going after the Bahrainis. The reality, therefore, is as is being reported. We also have to be a little careful about what the government tells us, because a year ago they denied everything that they were doing, and yet it all came out later in the independent report into the troubles. Everything that the media and the human rights people said was happening proved to be true. Most of what the government said was shown to have been false. Thus are we really sensible to believe what they are saying when the other sources are again saying the opposite?”
I also went on to explain to him that while I am primarily an F1 reporter I know rather a lot about resistance movements. I have written a book about the French Resistance. I wrote a dissertation about the covert activities of the CIA in South East Asia and (and I still marvel at the lunacy) back in the early 1980s I was nearly blown up twice on the same day by IRA bombs in London. My reaction was strange. While most people got angry, I simply found that I wanted to understand why. I was not a journalist then, but I wanted to talk to terrorists and ask them to explain why they were blowing up innocent people. I began this process by walking into an Irish pub on the Kilburn High Road in London and asking them if they could put me in touch with the people from “The Cause”, as at the time you couldn’t get a drink there without making a small donation… I went on to meet two people who purported to be members of the IRA and the INLA. The first was not very clever, the second was chillingly bright. And he explained how someone who feels oppressed can justify terrible actions in the name of the cause.
I explained to Bernie that if I was one of the opposition in Bahrain I would see the arrival of the F1 circus as a challenge, and a great opportunity to get my message across to the world and I believed that two things were inevitable: that there will be attempts to use the F1 race to draw attention to what is going on there; and therefore there would be a violent government reaction to that.
“This means that whether we like it or not the race is in the firing line and it is just a matter of how bad things will be,” I wrote. “The only way to guarantee that there is not trouble is not to go. That may not help Bahrain, but trying to help them could do F1 a lot of damage, politically and commercially”.
What I found when I got to Bahrain was that, yes, there are problems, but they were far less widespread than the reports have suggested. We spent three days criss-crossing the country on different routes, twice each day. We never saw a single protester, let alone a rioter. We saw a lot of police cars, but only one armoured car. We saw no burning tyres, smelled no tear gas. We even went to some of the hotspots such as the old Pearl Roundabout, but all was quiet. But that was not the message that was sent out around the world. Bahrain and Formula 1 was on the front pages of newspapers everywhere, with lurid reports and ringing condemnations. A lot of the F1 journalists who work for newspapers were asked by their employers to go and find the trouble. They got very excited about being involved in something a bit different. They soon discovered that if you wanted to find trouble you could. And the activists were only too keen to help and give incendiary interviews.
On the other hand the government was bending over backwards to deliver its message, but unsurprisingly most media did not trust “the regime”, because of its past record. I was definitely wary. But it became clear very quickly that this was no insurrection and that the one group of people who were not being given a voice were the silent majority to whom no-one was bothering to talk.
Enter Hasan Emad, a blog reader, who wrote welcoming me to Bahrain: “I am a normal citizen, have my own business here in Bahrain, and I live in Juffair. It is going to be my great pleasure to invite you for a cup of coffee or a dinner if you have a time to do so. So we can sit and chit chat about F1 and what is going on here in Bahrain”.
Why not? I thought. Here was a chance to hear from people who are not activists. I was slightly worried that this might be a government plant but I would have to figure that out as I went along. I did not for one minute think I would be kidnapped or anything like that. I mentioned to my pal David Tremayne that I was going to be doing this and he asked to come along, in his role as a reporter for The Independent. Similarly Brad Spurgeon of the International Herald Tribune joined the party. Hasan turned up with a mate called Yaqoob Salman Mohamed Al-Slaise, a Sunni IT lecturer at Bahrain University and the five of us then wandered off to Starbucks in Juffair where we met up with Ahmed al Mahri, a Shia banker. We sat upstairs at a large table where Hasan said he used to do his homework. We had talked about F1 and it was clear that Hasan was a huge fan.
“I had tears in my eyes when they first announced a Grand Prix in Bahrain,” he said. “I have been a fan since 1994.” The other two said that they liked F1. They were a bit vague about how they had met, but David, Brad and I all concluded independently that they were not plants. They were just normal people expressing a view. Hasan and Yaqoob were Sunnis, Ahmed a Shia. But Hasan said that he employed Shias in his real estate business.
“We are living in a mixed community and we never differentiate,” said Hasan. “Between the normal people, let’s say, who don’t have an agenda, we don’t have any bad feelings between each other. We live together. We have marriages from both sides.”
“Only yesterday I was paying respects to my friend’s brother who passed away recently. He was a Shia,” said Yaqoob, “but because of the events we have reached a level of sectarianism.”
How does F1 help to solve all this?
“Because people like you are here and you are listening and getting the right picture of what’s going on in the country,” said Ahmed. “F1 is sport, it has created a lot of jobs for Bahrainis, created a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs, raised the standard of life in Bahrain during the past eight years. It’s marketed Bahrain. Nobody knew anything about Bahrain before the grand prix. But when you are in a position claiming that you want a reform, you want a better future, you don’t fight to stop such an event, where your people are the number one beneficiary out of it. I don’t understand what is the point of that?”
“We frankly need the race,” Yaqoob said, “whether to help our slumping economy with many Bahrainis buying tickets for the first time in sake of making the race a success and that the country and its people will not ‘stand down’ in face of those who incite violence on the street under the cloak of ‘peaceful protesting’ or as an attempt to sabotage the F1 by scaring away teams, media and fans from our GP. Violence does not bring democracy nor better human rights nor does sabotaging a sporting event bring reforms. It only leads to more hatred and spite and keeps us in a political stalemate.”
They disagreed on whether or not the government reforms promised are too slow. Yaqoob saying that “one of the reasons why people protesting felt that wheels of reform aren’t moving fast enough, and I agree with that, especially now that we have the BICI report and the national dialogue in July, we are not feeling the results of this, some steps have been taken, but not as fast as people would like. But at same time feel that because there is escalated violence on the streets it won’t lead us to that, rather than force the government, blackmailing them with violence, these things aren’t helping.”
Ahmed did not agree. He said that the country is far more advanced than anywhere else in the region and that King Hamad is largely responsible for that. He came to power in 1998 and the reforms began in 2002.
“Actually the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister are idols for us as Bahrainis,” Ahmed, the Shia remember, says. “The Crown Prince is highly target orientated, same as the PM. The PM has long experience in this country. I am not saying he’s perfect. Many voices here and there say he isn’t good, but the thing is that most people love this man, and honour and respect him and don’t want him to leave. It is just not right to overthrow him. Respect will lead to dialogue and it happened last year, but when people are rejecting the outcomes of that, through violence in the street, this doesn’t help the country to move on. Come and participate with us to improve the future, don’t just stand your ground and fight on the street. They are strong-headed, but they don’t want to share their personal target with the rest. They claimed last year they didn’t like the atmosphere, but the majority managed to put across their views. But there have been changes to the Constitution as a result. Some aspects have been slow: living standards, salaries, housing services, but it is not fair compare Bahrain to other countries. People in US wouldn’t get these services, the US government does not provide these resources. Every man in the US needs to work all his life just to buy a house, and if he misses a couple of instalments he loses it. People compare Bahrain to Syria. This is disgraceful. The picture that is being portrayed about Bahrain, 90 percent of that isn’t true.”
Yaqoob argued that it was only the extremists who are opposed to the grand prix itself, but they nonetheless see it as a means to get their view across to the world. All three of them believe that the extremists are co-ordinated and funded by Iran, and that it is their intent to try to impose its theological dogma on the multi-cultural society in Bahrain.
“I have seen reports that ask why the rioters are there,” said Ahmed. “Frankly, they don’t know why they are there. They are kids.”
“These people are brainwashed,” says Hasan, “and they are being paid. Why do they start at 3pm and end at midnight? So they can sleep and go back to school.”
Yaqoob summed it up well.
“As a Bahraini I cannot trust people who call for and use the word democracy when I know that behind that is a theological ideology. I cannot risk this very huge jump into elected government or a republic. It’s like throwing myself into a pool of sharks. We need to push toward more freedom, more democracy in the country but you need to do it in phases. I cannot jump right into an elected government especially with a community or society like Bahrain which because of events has turned into a sectarian monster. Sunnis not just shias, shias not just sunnis. Suppose a shia majority in Parliament goes on to form a shia government, I cannot trust then because I have other examples in front of me, like Iran… When it comes to elections the ayatollah gets into his pulpit and he reads a list of people and you as believers must vote for these people. The term that’s used is ‘the faith list’. If you do not vote for these people you are a non-believer, you are violating God.”
“I tell you something,” said Hasan. “In the villages if people are not with the shias, they get their houses firebombed.”
All three recounted tales of personal experiences in the troubles. Things that had happened to them, people they knew who had been killed or injured.
“Violence anywhere is unacceptable,” said Hasan. “The majority of people here are not protesting. If I cannot go to my office because of protests, how do I earn money? Where is my human right to work? I have salaries to pay, but if I can’t work I cannot earn money.”
“Our aim is to throw what happened here last year behind our backs,” says Ahmed. “We need to get back to what we were before February 14 2011, to be one society again. I don’t know who created the Unif1ed slogan and it may have sounded bad, but it shows to people reading it how you should feel about your country. The most important thing is to stop the violence. You have to respect the law. If you break the law, there are no excuses. If you don’t like this country, you can leave. Even if you are not a Bahraini, a foreigner, you have to respect the rules.”
“The matter in hand is that these protests that are continuing on an almost daily basis don’t lead us to a political solution, which at the end of the day has to happen,” says Yaqoob. “If you have one part of society who is happy to be violent, and endangers the lives of your fellow countrymen, I find it not to reflect the values we hold. We need to establish that the events in Bahrain gave birth to what was once the “silent majority” or now called “Al-Fateh” (the grand mosque near your hotel), a place that’s welcoming to people of all faiths and backgrounds as was the Gathering of National Unity which brought over 100,000 Bahrainis to Al-Fateh Mosque’s parking area in solidarity and fear for the shattering of Bahrain’s national unity due to events and called for reforms and end to violence and bloodshed. From that day, February 21 2011, the political scene in Bahrain shifted from a Al-Khalifa vs Shia opposition to one with three sides Al-Khalifa vs Al-Fateh opposition vs Shia opposition. From February some steps were taken by all sides in search of a solution, one being the National Dialogue in July 2011 and the BICI report last November and the start of implementing the report’s recommendations. The Shia opposition must stop all violence against fellow countrymen from whichever sect. The opposition must stop violence against police officers, expats and neighbors from different sects and faiths. The government must complete implementing the National Dialogue recommendations and the BICI report recommendations fully. The Shia opposition must acknowledge what appeared in the BICI report especially Chapter 8 regarding assaults against the expat and Sunni communities and apologize to those who’ve suffered from their racist and sectarian actions. Political development should occur is phases and not in a giant leap. Democracy is a culture in addition to process or system. We unfortunately have a culture of following religious figures who seek a theological system which goes totally against the idea of freedom and democracy in my opinion. Building a democratic culture through implementing reforms in stages will hopefully lead us to a better democracy in Bahrain rather than ending up with a sectarian government in seek of revenge. Through dialogue and reaching a consensus hopefully we will see a better stronger Bahrain and maybe this year’s F1 slogan “UniF1ed” will be achieved.”
On Sunday morning I put all my thoughts together in a blog post called “A reflection”. I had read that morning that “the dozens of armoured cars that were lining the routes to the circuit” and I knew that this was a complete invention. My faith in much of the media was completely undermined. Perhaps you get what you deserve. The Bahraini’s idea of not allowing in established media outlets has meant that the news available has been scraped together by local stringers and anyone else available and everyone seemed to have been sensationalising everything. My view was echoed throughout the F1 paddock. All our relatives afar were worried and we were all saying the same things. There is nothing to worry about. There was certainly no insurrection.
After the race I was busy working away in the Media Centre. The story was motor racing again, with a passing reference to a rather poor effort of a protest at the race behind the main grandstand, which had resulted in the swift arrest of two women protesters. It was perhaps not the best moment to talk to anyone, as deadlines were upon us. Nonetheless I was asked to go and see the Crown Prince, who had expressed the desire to speak to me. At times like that I would normally refuse all invitations, but this one was intriguing. I went, pondering what on earth he might want to say to a reporter who is only really interested in Formula 1. What message did he wish to deliver? I was somewhat taken aback when he simply shook my hand and thanked me. All that he wanted, he said, was for people to give them a chance to fix the problems and he wanted to thank me for having done that. That was amazing for me. I said what I always say. I was simply telling the truth, as I see it. I may not always be right, but I do the best I can.
My piece was quoted in the local newspaper, called the Gulf News, which I had abused a few days earlier for its toothless coverage of events. They did not mention that I was still of the belief that the Grand Prix should not have happened because of the politicised nature of the race. I hear all the arguments about how it can be a force for good but I still think it is wrong. The sport ended up serving the interests of both sides in the conflict – with no real voice for the views of Yaqoob, Hasan and Ahmed and the hundreds of thousands of others like them.
All Formula 1 got from Bahrain was awful media coverage. It was universally negative. There are some, Bernie Ecclestone among them, who do not believe that there is such a thing as bad publicity. One should never forget that Bernie uses controversy on a regular basis to create interest in events. Some years ago in the United States he described America’s motorsport sweetheart Danica Patrick as “a domestic appliance”. That made a huge impact.
There is no question that the Bahrain Grand Prix did get the sport into the news, but will that really lead to new viewers? Or will it sully the image of the sport and make it harder for everyone to sell F1 to sponsors?
Despite this I could not disagree with some of what FIA President Jean Todt said. “I am not sure all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country,” he said. “But I feel F1 is very strong. It is a very strong brand, and all the people among the teams to whom I have been speaking are very happy. Yes, there are certain problems, yes there are some protests – because it is a democratic country and protests are allowed. At the most it is 10 percent of the people who are anti. So do we have to penalise 90 per cent of the population because 10 per cent are against it? My answer is no.”
My answer is that we should have stayed out of it but, once committed, then if we managed to show the world that there are three sides to this argument then I guess we served a good purpose.
At least I hope so.
And we gave them a good race, which is why I was really there…