The eighty-one-year-old Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is normally just thought of as eccentric, but at the Chinese Grand Prix last week, he sounded completely out of touch with reality. Asked by a reporter if he thought Bahrain was politically stable enough to hold the F1 Bahrain Grand Prix on April 22, he was unequivocal in his response. “There’s nothing happening (in Bahrain),” he said. “I know people that live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.” Hours later, clashes broke out between protestors and security forces after the funeral for Ahmed Ismail, who was shot during a demonstration in March. Some of those in attendance threw firebombs at police and the authorities responded by firing tear gas and birdshot to clear the crowds. “No F1, no F1,” Ismail’s mother, Makyia Ahmed, told The Associated Press. “They killed my son in cold blood.”
After weeks of debate over whether the Bahrain Grand Prix should be canceled for a second straight year because of the ongoing political unrest in the country, the FIA—Formula One’s world governing body—announced on Friday that the race would go ahead as planned. The organization said FIA President Jean Todt had met with politicians, diplomats and the crown prince during a visit to Bahrain in November and was confident that enough security measures would be in place to ensure the safety of all the participants, as well as the fans. Adding his two cents, John Yates, Scotland Yard’s former top counter-terrorism official who is now advising the Bahraini government on police reform, said the country is predominantly peaceful and social media sites are presenting a “distorted picture” of the situation. “Along with my family, I feel completely safe. Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London,” he wrote in a letter to Todt.
Amnesty International paints a far different picture, however. In a report released Monday, the London-based human rights group said not much has changed in Bahrain since authorities violently cracked down on the tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets during the Arab Spring uprising of early 2011 to demand a greater political voice in the country. The report notes that the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, set up by the government to investigate the crackdown, found that authorities committed “gross human rights violations,” including excessive use of force against protesters and widespread torture. But the government’s attempts at reform since then have been “piecemeal,” the group said. “The Bahraini authorities have become more concerned with rebuilding their image and investing in public relations than with actually introducing real human rights and political reforms in the country,” the report reads.
Amnesty said that violence against protesters continues unabated and hundreds of protesters remain in prison after being tried by military courts and receiving harsh prison sentences. Among them are eight opposition leaders who were sentenced to life in prison for “plotting to topple the government,” including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who has been on a hunger strike for more than 60 days and was last week described as being in a “very critical” condition, according to Denmark’s prime minister. (Al-Khawaja has dual Danish-Bahraini citizenship and Denmark has been pressing Bahrain to release him to its custody.) Numerous protests have been staged in recent weeks demanding al-Khawaja’s release—and on Sunday, opposition leaders announced a week of pro-democracy protests leading up to the Formula One race.
This means F1 drivers could be in for an unpleasant welcome when they land in Manama this week. After last year’s event was canceled due to the turmoil gripping the country, Bahraini authorities were less than eager to call off the country’s biggest sporting event once again, even if it means some of the TV cameras beaming the race to a global audience of 100 million will also be fixed on anti-government protesters. And FIA officials were adamant it wasn’t their place to cancel the race—only the Bahrainis could do that. As Ecclestone put it in Shanghai: “I’m happy that our position is quite clear. We don’t get involved in politics in a country. … They will sort out their internal problems, I’m quite sure.”
But obviously, politics and Formula One are deeply intertwined—particularly in Bahrain. Crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, spearheaded the construction of the Bahrain International Circuit and owns the rights to the Grand Prix. Sheikh Abdullah bin Isa al-Khalifa, the brother of the king, serves as head of the Automobile Federation of Bahrain and is a member of the FIA World Motor Sport Council. Bahrain also owns a 30% stake in one of F1’s top teams, McLaren.
As for whether Formula One should be returning to Bahrain on moral grounds, the sport’s top officials and drivers are staying silent. Last year, former world champion Damon Hill said F1 “must align itself with progression, not repression,” and current Red Bull driver Mark Webber said “it’s probably not the best time to go.” Former FIA President Max Mosley also criticized the decision to hold the race, writing in the Daily Telegraph, “By running the race, they [the Bahrain authorities] hope to show the world the troubles were just a small, temporary difficulty and everything is now back to normal. By agreeing to race there, Formula One becomes complicit in what has happened.”
What a difference a year makes. When six drivers were asked at the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend whether they had moral objections to going to Bahrain, all six sat completely still and were silent. Only Webber offered up an opinion later on—and even he seemed resigned to the eventuality of the race going ahead. “Ultimately, we are all human. We have morals, we have ways we see things,” he said. “We like to think that people and situations are fair and everything is, as I suppose, correct as we would like it to be. … As a Grand Prix driver, I’m contracted to the team, they’re contracted to the FIA. They hold a 20-round world championship. We go to those venues and race. And that’s where it is.”