Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Formula One Race in Bahrain

Despite ongoing protests, it appears that the Formula One race is on, and scheduled to begin in Bahrain next Sunday.

A Formula One race (via FIA). 

Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration, argued that Bahrain's problems are separate from, and unrelated to the Formula One race; he articulated his refusal to interfere in Bahrain's domestic issues. "I don't think sports should be involved in politics," he told CNN yesterday.
Above: Bernie Ecclestone explains his decision to keep the Formula One race in Bahrain.

I think Ecclestone's desire to separate sports from politics is laudable. If we accept the argument that the F1 race ought to be cancelled in Bahrain in order to punish the government for its human rights abuses, then we could argue that 2012 Chinese Grand Prix race should also be cancelled. It is well known that China has an abysmal human rights record, and, to understate, does not look kindly on democracy activists.

In other words, cancelling the race in Bahrain would imply that human rights compliance is a prerequisite for hosting international events. If such is the case – and perhaps it should be -- then who gets to determine which countries are worthy of hosting? Who has the authority to set the terms of the debate in the first place? An editorial published in the Gulf Daily News last week made a similar point.

A press release from the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the organization in charge of the Formula 1 race, explicates its decision to hold the race in Bahrain

The FIA must make rational decisions based on the information provided to us by the Bahraini authorities and by the Commercial Rights Holder. In addition we have endeavoured to assess the ongoing situation in Bahrain.

President Jean Todt led a fact-finding mission to the Kingdom in November 2011, meeting a large number of decision-makers and opinion formers, including elected Shīʿa members of parliament, the president of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, ambassadors from the European Union countries, the Crown Prince, the Interior Minister and many members of the business community.

All expressed their wish for the Grand Prix to go ahead in 2012, and since then, the FIA has kept in close touch with all these stakeholders. Away from the public eye, the FIA has received regular security briefings from the most senior diplomatic officials based in the Kingdom as well as from other independent experts.
The Government 

Bahrain has assured the international community that the country is safe enough to host the race. Last night in an interview on BBC Arabic, one Bahraini pointed out that the Formula One race is extremely important for Bahrain's economy. Last year, when the race was canceled amidst protests, the tourism industry suffered immensely.

The Opposition

The race is likely to be held with heavy security measures, especially for team members. Bahraini opposition groups have continued to protest against the race, and have threatened to block main roads and burn tires everywhere in the country. Today, an unconfirmed rumor circulated that a bomb was found in the F1 track, then dismantled.

Violence continues in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Protestors have criticized the government's poor human rights record among other things, arguing that they are using the F1 race as an opportunity to improve their image on the world stage. The opposition has highlighted the plight of jailed hunger-striking Danish-Bahraini activist Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja.

As Amnesty International pointed out,

Holding the Grand Prix in Bahrain in 2012 risks being interpreted by the government of Bahrain as symbolizing a return to business as usual. The international community must not turn a blind eye to the ongoing human rights crisis in the country. The government must understand that its half-hearted measures are not sufficient -- sustained progress on real human rights reform remains essential.
The Obama Administration has treaded carefully with its strategic Gulf ally, and has frequently been accused of hypocrisy.
In a statement last week on Bahrain, the White House alluded to the violence:
More broadly, we urge the government to redouble its ongoing efforts to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and renew our call for the government, opposition parties, and all segments of Bahraini society to engage in a genuine dialogue leading to meaningful reforms that address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis.
In conclusion, I have tried to fairly portray the Formula One debate, which continues online (Twitter: #Bahrain #F1 #Formula1 #formulaOne).

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