Way back in 1968 Peter Hain coined the phrase “You cannot play normal sport in an abnormal country”. He was talking about Apartheid South Africa – but the principle he was articulating then still gets to the heart of the issue of Sport and Politics today. The thing about sport is that if is essentially trivial and ephemeral. To the sports fan, at the time, it seems anything but this of course. We care greatly that our team wins and the more important the match the more we care. But in time, often within a few days, every fan moves on. Any team is only as good, or bad, as it’s last game and no event is so important that the basic principles of Human Rights, justice and decency don’t apply. When the football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers was abandoned after one of the Bolton players was taken seriously ill nobody thought the decision was wrong – there was absolute unanimity that it was the right thing to do. True it was an important event but it was only a sporting fixture and it would have been tasteless to continue. Which brings us to the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Arab Spring has been one of the most interesting political developments of modern times. Countries with totalitarian Governments like Libya and Egypt have seen those Government fall and others like Syria are teetering on the brink. Others have out of fear instituted some systemic change or tried to bribe their populace into acquiescence to the status quo (the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia). In this febrile world the Kingdom of Bahrain, an old-fashioned and at times tyrannical monarchy, has been in the eye of the storm. The Kingdom has always been something of a paradox. Whilst it is entirely undemocratic it has certain social freedoms when compared with its huge neighbour the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. That is why at the weekends in particular the causeway from the KSA is busy as Saudis come to drink and to whore more easily than they can at home. Bahrain has also been a friend of the West – especially as the home of the US Navy in the Persian Gulf. And the Bahrainis have an ambition to follow emirates like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar in attracting inwards investment and in strutting on the world stage. The Kingdom is a player in financial services and had been growing rapidly – there is a more than embryonic property market for foreign investors – F1 driver Jenson Button had a house there for a time. But, as we have seen, Bahrain is currently far less stable than some of its neighbours. It is even more autocratic than they are and the fact that the leadership is Sunni whilst most of its inhabitants are Shia adds to the instability. In an extensive recent report Amnesty International said:
“The Human Rights crisis in Bahrain is not over. Despite the authoritiesâ€™ claims to the contrary, state violence against those who oppose the Al Khalifa family rule continues, and in practice, not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in February and March 2011.”
The Grand Prix
Many modern-day Formula one Grands Prix are held in Nations where the normal rules of commercial logic do not apply. They are essentially exercises in country promotion and funded from bottomless bags of oil money or other central resources. The benefits in respect of national identity are seen to outweigh the considerable costs. Malaysia, China, Abu Dhabi, India, Singapore, Korea and of course Bahrain hold Grands Prix even though the local population shows little interest in them and spectator attendances at the events are often pitifully low. These Grands Prix are elitist and arguably harmless indulgences by rich men who can afford the considerable costs. But when they take place in Countries like the UAE, China, Malaysia and Bahrain which have poor or appalling Human Rights records then it is legitimate to ask questions. For the FIA (Federation Internationale de Lâ€™Automobile) the organisers of Formula one Grand Prix the politics and Human Rights record of the country in which an event is held is of no interest. They are only concerned about the commercial and safety/security aspects of an event. Last year there was no F1 Grand Prix in Bahrain not because it would have been a moral affront to go ahead – but because it was deemed not safe to do so. And the decision to go ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix this year was based solely on an assessment that it was safe to do so. The fact that going ahead in the light of the Amnesty report (and other recent happenings in the Kingdom) would cause offence was not the FIA’s concern.