While other Arab countries (Libya in particular), have been able to rely on and call to foreign aide, either in the form of media coverage or military support, Bahrain hasn’t quite received that same amount of solidarity from the outside world towards its plight for justice. Perhaps this is a symptom of a lack of sympathy directed towards the Gulf state – in relation to other countries involved in the Arab Spring, Bahrain was financially more sound, had a thriving economy and maintained low poverty rates.
In essence, Bahrain doesn’t “tick most of the boxes” when it comes to a politically torn and disrupted country.
Yet, the country descended into chaos in February, when Bahraini citizens decided to hold protests aimed at achieving greater freedoms and rights for the majority Shia’a Muslim population. An operation dubbed the “Lulu Revolution,” it eventually shifted from a series of protests to a campaign of civil resistence.
It’s worth mentioning that the Bahraini Royal Family/Monarchy, headed by King Hamad is a Sunni one – this essentially gave Bahraini citizens another (legitimate) platform for their protests. The protest’s onus was eventually expanded and shifted to a call to end the Monarchy. Essentially, they wanted the resignation of the ruling leader, King Hamad.
But if there’s one thing the Arab Spring taught us, it’s that Arab rulers/dictators/kings treat these kinds of rebellions extremely seriously (bar Tunisia and Egypt arguably). As was the case in Yemen, Libya and still Syria, widespread killings and havoc engulfed the once peaceful and oil-rich state of Bahrain. Currently, Bahrain’s situation is looking increasingly bleak, as civilian will continues to be tested against a barrage of resistance and aggression from the government.
The focal point of this article though, is to question the FIA‘s hesitance to cancelling the popular F1 Bahrain Grand Prix that takes place annually in March. A race heralded by the FIA officials as “the best organized grand prix,” it’s (apparent) cancellation in February last year came as a glimmer of hope for all Bahraini’s in revolt. It seemed as though the outside world had heard their pleas after all.
This facade of solidarity was temporary, unfortunately. The occurrence of the race was once again firmly back in contention as early as May, with the next season holding it’s race early in the calendar year amidst newly instated violence. The reason – FIA officials believed in sport’s ability to “unite people,”implying that perhaps staging the F1 race in the 2011 calendar year was in fact beneficial for Bahrain. To this, former F1 World Champion Damon Hill stated that staging the race in “the blood-soaked kingdom” during the Bahraini uprising would be “on a par with sporting tours that chose to play in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.”
Of course, the actions of the Royal Family when they lifted the country’s imposed state of emergency (in-place since March 15th) didn’t help the Bahraini citizens cause. A cosmetic change taken so Bahrain’s global image remains intact no doubt, this end of “martial law” was also the final thumbs up the FIA needed in rescheduling the race for October of the same calendar year (2011), a decision taken at the beginning of June. It is worth mentioning that an original decision regarding the race was expected by mid-May, but at the request of Bahraini authorities, an extension was granted. Finally, after another change of heart, on June 9th, a definitive decision was taken – the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was to be totally scrapped. The 2012 F1 season though, will kick off in Bahrain.
The inevitable question that arises though from all this – why was the FIA so hesitant on cancelling the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix? Some may actually point to (and possibly believe) the FIA’s legitimation of the race as a force that would “unite the people” of Bahrain. Many (quite understandably) though would simply state and side with the obvious elephant in the room – the FIA are more concerned about revenue and profits than uniting the people of Bahrain.
That being said, one must not undermine or underestimate the power that modern sports can play in uniting or rallying a people behind a single cause. The world has seen it time and again – when citizens of a hugely fragmented and chaotic country where political-party tensions run deep and are normally (and quite often) cause for violence and bloodshed (such as perhaps Pakistan), successfully stand together and put aside their differences to cheer on their Cricket team, it’s simply too hard to ignore the huge potential and influence sports may have on politics (but that’s an idea for another day).
But is F1 really that sort of sport. Given that there is no Bahraini representation, is it really viable to claim that an occurrence of the Bahrain GP would help unite Bahraini citizens? The other obvious question then begs itself then – are Bahraini citizens even disunited in their plight? Considering majority of Bahrain’s population is of Shia’a Islamic allegiance, coupled with the fact that the uprising started in of itself as a protest demanding more rights for Bahraini citizens, I find it difficult to understand the FIA’s said claim.
Of course some may say it was simply a naive statement. But given that the once acclaimed South Africa GP was cancelled from 1985 till the end of the Apartheid era by the same organization (as part of the Sporting boycott of South Africa), it’s fair to say this isn’t the first time the FIA has had to deal with this sort of issue.
This leads one to logically conclude that the FIA’s main motives were indeed revenue based. Given that the race is the only GP that takes place in the Middle East, it’s fair to say that the FIA had more to lose with the race’s cancellation. Exclusive TV broadcasting rights, targeted advertising profits and of course ticket sales, are just a few streams of revenue the FIA could have benefited off from the race. Finding an alternative track (which I believe they were successful in doing) in a relatively short amount of time equates to more needless expenditure of money, cognitive effort and time, and would almost certainly result in a loss of potential revenue in relation to the Bahrain GP.
Though the race was eventually cancelled, many feel it was simply “too little too late.” The damage has been done, and the FIA now has a long road of corporate profile amending via public appeasement ahead of it.
Had the FIA really cared about the Bahraini people, they would have taken a swift definitive decision as early as February. A complete cancellation of this unnecessary sporting event would have arguably done two things; it would have been perceived as an act of support and solidarity towards the protesting civilians, and made their indirect condemnation of the Bahraini government aggression crystal clear.