Coffee House

Car crash in the desert?

19 April 2012

5:52 PM

19 April 2012

5:52 PM

In 2004, when the Formula One circus first travelled to the Middle East
for the inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix, there was little sign of the storm to come. The first event was hailed as a success — and not just for Michael Schumacher, who notched up his 73rd
victory in the Sakhir desert. The FIA — the sport’s governing body — even declared it that year’s ‘Best Organised Grand Prix’. Few would have guessed then that, eight years
later, so many would want to see the race cancelled.

But when the calls came — first from Nabeel Rajab, the Vice President of the Bahrain Centre
for Human Rights, two days after Bahraini police were accused of beating him — it wasn’t such a surprise. After all, last year’s race had already been cancelled following the
outbreak of civil unrest, and the situation is hardly any calmer now than it was then. Rajab’s intervention was followed by that of a group of our own parliamentarians — seven peers and
Green MP Caroline Lucas — in the Times:

‘Given the current dire situation, with daily street protests and the deaths of more civilians, we do not believe that the time is right for Formula One to return to


The Bahraini authorities attempted to allay these concerns, with former Met Assistant Commissioner John Yates — now an adviser to the Bahraini government — writing a letter to the FIA saying that the significance of the clashes seen on YouTube ‘should not be overplayed’. ‘Along
with my family, I feel completely safe,’ he wrote. ‘Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London.’ And so, the FIA decided
to press on
with the event, declaring itself ‘satisfied that all the proper security measure are in place’. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone said ‘it’s not for us to decide
how people run their country’. 

The decision was instantly condemned by Amnesty International, who warned that holding the race ‘risks being interpreted by the government of Bahrain as symbolizing a return to business as
usual’. Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has called for the race to be cancelled and, today, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Bahrain has written to
some of F1’s biggest sponsors urging them to boycott the race. It said:

‘We are most alarmed that you see no grounds to sever your brand and save its reputation from a totalitarian regime.’

And the teams had barely touched down before they got their first taste of the protests. Yesterday, as the BBC’s Andrew Benson reports, a car carrying four mechanics of the Force India team was caught in a clash between protesters and police, with petrol bombs flying
overhead. None of them were hurt, although two team members have since asked to return home, and the race is still set to go ahead on Sunday.

It’s rare that sport gets so political. Let’s hope the Olympics can unwind some of its own controversies before the
Games start in 99 days time.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Ella Traga

    Thsi is very

  • Rhoda Klapp

    David L, they are pro-democracy demonstrators. I heard it on the BBC. How well served we are by our national broadcaster.

  • Dimoto

    A little ironic that “the west”, with little, big-mouth, Hague in the van, is so enthusiastic in backing the replacement of a bloody but secular Syrian government with a bunch of Salafi primitives backed by Saudi, Qatar and Bahrain.

    As for Ecclestone, when he eventually shuffles off, you can be sure that, as with all other “sport administrations”, he will be replaced by some corrupt, eminently biddable Latino.

  • David Lindsay

    Bahrain has least eight indigenous ethnic groups, including a small but very ancient and entrenched Jewish community which maintains the Gulf’s only synagogue and Jewish cemetery, and also including a community of black African descent, part of the East African diaspora in the East hardly known about by those very used to the West African diaspora in the West. Around one fifth of the inhabitants of Bahrain is non-Muslim, and around half of that is Christian. The women’s headscarf is strictly optional. No one disputes that Bahraini Muslims are two-thirds Shi’ite. Correspondingly, no one disputes that Bahraini Muslims are one-third Sunni.

    All legislation requires the approval of both Houses of Parliament, and, while one of those Houses is entirely appointed by the monarch (as in Britain or Canada), the other is entirely elected by universal suffrage. The Upper House, to which women are regularly appointed to make up for their dearth in the elected Lower House, includes a Jewish man and a Christian woman; the latter was the first woman ever to chair a Parliament in the Arab world. The Ambassador to the United States is a Jewish woman, the first Jewish ambassador of any modern Arab state, although the third woman to be an Ambassador of Bahrain. She was previously an elected parliamentarian. Notably, she describes her Jewish identity as unconnected, either to the State of Israel, which Bahrain does not recognise, or to the Holocaust, of which she knew nothing until she was 14.

    Her British higher education and British husband, as well as the fact that the synagogue brings in its rabbis from Britain, point to the very close ties indeed between that country and this. We installed the Al Khalifa in 1783, and they have done everything to keep up the link ever since. From Bahrain, via Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to Oman is Britain’s natural and longstanding sphere of influence, as their rulers would and do tell you. It is beyond me why they are not in the Commonwealth.

    I do not welcome the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, which, as the base of the United States Fifth Fleet, has not been subjected to any such incursion without at least American approval, if not American instruction. I have no wish to see a Wahhabisation of Bahraini Sunnism, since at present all of the above is perfectly acceptable even to the Salafi Members of Parliament. But which part of it do the demonstrators wish to conserve? Do they wish to conserve any of it? Or do they wish to overthrow it in order to replace it with something else entirely? We have not asked. We never do. It is very high time that we did.

  • Reconstruct

    The sorry thing about this is first, Bahrainis are genuinely good guys; second, they’ve had the same Prime Minister now for 42 years, and they’re sick of him. In other words, this is a problem with a very simple solution, which simply isn’t being grasped. Instead, it is being left to fester – and nothing good can or will come from that.

  • Maggie

    The BBC? The Labour Opposition? Amnesty International? I don’t usually take an notice of their exaggerated views on anything. This looks to me like another hysterical campaign orchestrated by people with no moral authority. I’m sick of the World Service stirring things up in other countries and then saying : “Look. These people are demonstrating”. They weren’t demonstrating and getting killed until the BBC incited them to do so.

  • MilkSnatcher

    I hardly think there is any danger that the public could be hoodwinked into thinking that a few go-karts tootling around a tarmac strip means everytghing is okay in Bahrain. Thanks to the internet, ecveryone knows what is really happening. Let sponsors and car manufacturers associate themselves (or not) with such an event and let the world think what they will of it.

    There is no point expecting Ecclestone to be in the slightest bit worried. He has successfully escaped the tobacco ban by exporting F1 to the developing world. There are always regimes who think they can get something positive out of building a circuit for one weekend a year.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Anyone know what is actually going on in Bahrain? Why here and not across the bridge in saudi? What have the population got to be so discontented about? Are they freedom fighters or troublemakers? How many external forces are involved on each side? Isn’t it all some kind of proxy fight for problems elsewhere? What makes the Bahraini regime so uniquely offensive?

  • wrinkled weasel

    It’s not about politics but it is about pragmatics. What nobody needs on Sunday is an Emily Davison moment.

  • In2minds

    And on the other hand let’s not overplay this other joke either –

    “The Bahraini authorities attempted to allay these concerns, with former Met Assistant Commissioner John Yates — now an adviser to the Bahraini government — writing a letter to the FIA saying that the significance of the clashes seen on YouTube ‘should not be overplayed’. ‘Along with my family, I feel completely safe,’ he wrote. ‘Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London.’

    And he a former Met chief! When we compare and contrast the ‘cash for Honours’ scandal with the initial ‘phone hacking’ investigation I suppose the only thing the Bahraini government should be grateful for is they got Yates and not Ali Dizaei!

  • daniel maris

    Why on earth do they allow the Chinese Grand Prix to continue when people in Tibet are being subject to a cruel, murderous unending oppression that amounts to cultural genocide, as defined by the UN. It is absolutely outrageous and far worse than what has been going on in Bahrain.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    “Next thing much of the third world will not want to come to London 2012 because of some perceived crime against Islam”


  • In2minds

    F1 and Bernie Ecclestone, remember he’s the one who had warm words to say about Hitler! As a joke F1 is fantastic but as a ‘sport’ it’s crap.

  • Tulkinghorn

    I was not with Reagan when he boycotted the Moscow Olympics and do not think we should play poitics with motorsport.
    Next thing much of the third world will not want to come to London 2012 because of some perceived crime against Islam or headlines over Qatada or Hamsa or such.