Formula One and Bahrain – A force for what, now?

Even with the best intentions there’s a limit to what one can do in any given day, which is why I’ve been following the uprising in Bahrain (a family-run Sunni dictatorship with a majority Shiite population), but haven’t yet written about it. The day, 24 hours, etc, and so on.

But that country’s crown prince said something today that just about made my skull fold in on itself, and so I’ve been driven to the keyboard.

Discussing the fact that the Formula One Grand Prix race will be held in his country on Sunday despite a year-long uprising in which protesters have been killed, gassed, imprisoned, and tortured, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa told the BBC that “cancelling the race just empowers extremists,” whereas holding the race can serve as “a force for good.”

A force for good.

A force for good?

You know what’s a force for good? Democracy. Human rights. Liberty and justice. That sort of thing.

You know what’s not a force for good? This:

“We have been receiving worrying reports of the disproportionate use of force by Bahraini security forces, including the excessive use of tear gas, the use of bird shot pellets and rubber bullets,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

“The use of tear gas in particular has reportedly resulted in a number of deaths of protestors and bystanders — and that number has reportedly risen in recent months,” he said. “Reliable sources indicate that the civilians who died from tear gas suffered complications from gas inhalation, and that security forces have been firing metal tear gas canisters from grenade launchers into crowds.”

Oh and hey –  look! Here’s a fact that surprised me exactly not at all!

Bahrain’s royal family owns a stake in Formula One racing, including part of the McLaren Group racing team.

Of course there are complications. The Crown Prince is considered a moderate, and the International Crisis Group pointed out to NPR that the Crown Prince “has built up the Formula One race in Bahrain as part of an economic power base designed to counter his hard-line rivals.”

And protesters have responded to violence with violence, breaking out gasoline bombs in response to the crackdown.

Not to mention the fact that Bahrain is spitting distance from Saudi Arabia and Iran, and serves as home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.

But at a certain point, I just don’t care. “Moderate” is far too slippery a term when you’re talking about a family business that’s invested in torture and extrajudicial killings; Bahrain’s protesters responded with violence after they were greeted with brutality; and I kinda thought that the US Navy was a representative of a nation predicated on democracy?

If the Crown Prince really wanted to see a “force for good” take hold, he would do everything in his power to see to it that the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (also known as the Bassiouni Report) are implemented in full, rather than piece-meal and as suits the ruling family’s interests. His country wouldn’t be hosting flashy races while a detainee approaches death on hunger strike, and riot police bring out stun grenades, birdshot and tear gas to hold protesters at bay.

What does the rebellion look like? It looks like the death of 14 year old schoolboy, killed for seeking freedom – even as the government tries to blame his parents for not controlling him. It looks like a family harassed for the temerity of having their child killed:

Indeed, it looks like a Formula One executive fired, because he made the mistake of liking a protest photo on Facebook.

But sure. The Formula One race can be a force for good. Why the hell not.


  1. zlionsfan

     /  April 20, 2012

    Isn’t this just the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s all over again? Yeah, the Crown Prince and the rest of the ruling family are bad, but you see, they’re not those bad guys, so we have to support them. (Apparently it never occurs to the people who make these decisions that if everyone in question is a bad choice, then perhaps we should support none of them. Ironically, that seems to create a situation where most countries in the region hate us, providing an excuse to support this family and the ruling Saudi family and …)

    F1 racing is, to my untrained eye, extremely sketchy anyway: a gigantic amount of money shoveled to a very small group of people. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Bahrain supports a team.

  2. watson42

     /  April 20, 2012

    The Guardian has had some good coverage of this over the last few weeks, and even earlier last year when the season’s race schedule was announced.

    As you point out, the royal family is part owner of one of the racing teams and pushed hard for F1 to hold a race there. Several of the teams have repeatedly voiced protest over holding the race, but Ecclestone said he wouldn’t cancel, and any team that wouldn’t race would both forfeit and be fined. Since sponsorships are heavily influenced by points, non-participation comes at a pretty high cost unless all the teams would agree not to race.

    For a long time there have been discussions about the role of influence and money in F1 and how it has compromised motorsport, but this goes way beyond that. It’s appalling.

  3. Darth Thulhu

     /  April 20, 2012

    Minor nitpick: Title reads “Forumla One” rather than “Formula One”. No biggie, but it is on the front page.

    Major kudos for everything else. Making smiles at “the somewhat less murderous” and “the slightly less oppressive” members of a ruling dictatorship just because “they are moderates” isn’t an ethical nor moral good. It may or may not be a necessary act of realpolitik, but it is never a good thing.

    • (Fixt! Thank you! Sheesh, and to think people sometimes offer to hire me as a copy editor. I break out in hives just thinking about it).

  4. Lise

     /  April 21, 2012

    You know what is a force for good? My sister. (I’m Emily’s only sister) I’m proud of your work & think our dad would be, too.

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