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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Marc Owen Jones: Putting a price tag on repression

"Whether Ecclestone likes it or not, the F1 in Bahrain has been politicized"

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The Bahrain Grand Prix, which ended yesterday, is fast becoming one of the most contentious sporting events in the world. Pro-democracy and human rights activists utilise the F1 as a platform to draw attention to the plight of many Bahrainis who have suffered severe human rights abuses at the hands of a government who have yet to demonstrate any tangible commitment to reform and accountability.

For the government, the F1 is touted as an economic boon, one that will ‘unite’ Bahrain and, according to Bahrain’s very own Minister of Truth, send a message of ‘peace and friendship’ to the world.

Despite the usefulness of the F1 in drawing attention to state crime in Bahrain, activists such as Maryam al Khawaja of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights are unequivocal; the F1 should be cancelled because it a) results in an increase in human rights violations and b) attempts to whitewash human rights abuses by projecting a veneer of normalcy in Bahrain. On the other hand, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad, the King of Bahrain’s son, Crown Prince and newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister, who is widely seen as a ‘moderate’ (whatever that means) and a reformer (ditto) firmly supports the F1. He argues that it brings $500 million dollars of indirect revenue to Bahrain, brings the country together, and increases the country’s profile.

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Many supporters of the F1 believe in the Crown Prince’s logic, one that puts monetary rewards above ethical and moral considerations. For some, everything has a price. Indeed, in order to make this bitter mercenary medicine easier to swallow, it must be couched in rhetoric that makes it more palatable. After all, there are few who wish to be accused of being callous, cold or unsympathetic. One such tactic is to dissociate F1 from politics. As Bernie Ecclestone says, “I don’t think sports should be involved with politics.”  

Whether Ecclestone likes it or not, the F1 in Bahrain has been politicized for the sole reason that the regime’s continued inability to come up with a meaningful political solution has meant that activists must seek other means by which to draw attention to their subaltern struggle. The country’s courts, parliaments, politicians and ministers have failed the thousands demanding reform, and therefore just as the government seek to use F1 to paint Bahrain as an attractive place worthy of investment (an inherently political act), protesters seek to use F1 to demonstrate to the world that Bahrain is not worthy of this tranquil and benign image.   

The F1 itself is a facade that ultimately highlights the government’s hypocrisy. Take for example, the words of Sameera Rajab, who said that the F1 was a message of ‘peace and friendship’. Perhaps she needs to tell that to the two defenceless boys, one of whom was slapped by the police, the other ignominiously rammed in the stomach with a police truncheon while the F1 was taking place. Or maybe she should tell that to the women beaten by security forces, or the dozens arrested from villages near the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) before the event. Or maybe tell that to the employees of the BIC who were tortured on the BIC premises back in 2011, or the relatives of Salah Abbas, who was shot and killed by the police on the eve of the F1 race during 2012 as he marched in a peaceful protest.

As far as many are concerned, holding the F1 is simply another victory for the regime, and another step away from having to confront the events of the past three years. To hold the F1 is to underline the validity of the status quo, and is another opportunity for a government accused of human rights violations to defend itself on camera in front of, in some cases, a warmly applauding audience. The juxtaposition of Bahrain with the inherent ‘modernity’ erroneously associated with F1 is perhaps enough to convince less critical members of a global community that Bahrain is indeed ok.

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After all, with the regime’s strenuous efforts to stop journalists from performing their job and documenting newsworthy incidents of repression, it is not always easy for people outside Bahrain to see the collateral damage created by the F1. Let us hope the three ITN journalists deported from Bahrain for breaking ‘laws and regulations’ picked up some useful footage.

In the meantime, let us ask ourselves this, is the cost of the F1 worth it? Is boosting Bahrain’s profile and generating $500 million dollars in indirect revenues worth the repression that its creation necessitates? Is it not wrong to support the F1 when it means adding a morsel of legitimacy and credibility to a regime that has shown no real commitment to addressing their human rights abuses? Does hosting the F1 simply serve to create an atmosphere of normalcy, one that highlights the regime’s argument that the events of 2011 were merely a blip or Arab Spring anomaly, and not the result of deep, systemic political problems?

As for those die hard neoliberals who believe the economic merits of the F1 trump any other consideration, then at least ask yourself this: Where does this $500 million go? Who benefits? Is it just the ruling classes and the merchant elites? If so, is it right for them to accrue huge amounts of a country’s wealth so long as the crumbs from the table are sufficient to sate the bestial needs of a population who are not entitled to the dignity inherent in being able to shape their own destiny?

Personally, I believe that subordinating human rights issues in favour of economic arguments is the mark of a scoundrel, and that individualism, greed and materialism should never take precedent over humanitarian considerations. Unless Bahrain’s protest movement is beaten into bloody submission, or meaningful political reform is sought, Bahrain’s F1 will continue to be an occasion of deception, repression and questionable economic benefit.

ALSO BY MARC How the Al Khalifas took a quarter of Bahrain’s wealth

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