Formula One’s new American owners have their work cut out for them. Bernie Ecclestone is out of the picture for the first time in 40 years, but the cracks in the empire he built began with his decision to take the grand prix to despotic countries.
The Bahrain Grand Prix is proving the achilles heel of the old Ecclestone policy, famously summed up with his question: “What human rights? I don’t know what they are.” Cancelled in 2011 after the government declared martial law to forcefully crush pro-democracy protests, the race returned in 2012 – but it was never the same. That year, the grand prix attracted protesters in the tens of thousands calling for its cancellation. On the eve of the race police shot dead father of five Salah Abbas. No one was ever held accountable for his death.
The evidence is clear: the grand prix coincides with heightened repression in Bahrain. At the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy we challenged Formula One, and in 2015 successfully negotiated its adoption of human rights commitments. Our work was not without risks: one colleague participating in the negotiation, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested for his human rights work during our talks with Formula One. He has been detained largely in solitary confinement for over nine months – both the UN and Amnesty International call it torture – and he currently faces up to 18 years in prison for his work to improve his country.
As the grand prix returns this weekend, Rajab and thousands of victims like him are betrayed by the silence of Theresa May’s government and Donald Trump’s administration. While the regime in Bahrain is a hereditary monarchy who has ruled through sheer force and oppression, and the UK and the US are supposedly democracies that value human rights, they do have one crucial thing in common. They value business deals over the lives of Bahrainis. Financial interest trumps the people’s right to a life free of fear and persecution. That is why, even as horrific abuses of human rights are reported every day, both governments remain tied to Bahrain. To Bahrainis, where their fate is concerned, they see dictatorships and democracies allied against them.
Ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, a reporter asked activists why we should expect Formula One to care about the lives and rights of Bahrainis, when little such concern is shown by the governments of the UK, where Formula One is headquartered, and the US, where its owners Liberty Media reside. This came minutes after those same activists had said that indifference was the worst kind of cruelty.
The evidence is clear: the grand prix coincides with heightened repression in Bahrain
When Formula One races in Bahrain, the message it sends out is that a Bahraini’s sacrifices for self-determination mean nothing because they are not equal to those who live and enjoy their rights and democracies in the west. It tells them that Enrique Iglesias’ concert at the race track is more important than their rights to freedom, and that care races are more important than protesters’ lives.
Some believe having the Bahrain Grand Prix gives journalists the opportunity to cover human rights abuses from the inside, because at no other time are journalists allowed into the country. But when one journalist was asked if he would indeed be willing to meet with protesters and torture victims, he hesitantly answered that it would probably not be a good idea, since they are required by the Bahraini government to sign papers stating they would cover nothing but the race, or immediately lose their visa.
Because which car is faster is what the world cares about, not the agony of a people fighting for their rights. As Formula One races in Bahrain this weekend, the country’s situation looks more serious than any time since the 2011 cancellation. Torture victims were executed in January and civil society is being silenced. Independent journalists risk lawsuits, arrest and abuse for their coverage of events.
This undeniably terrible situation is exacerbated by the grand prix. Bahrain treats the race as a global-scale PR opportunity. Protesters, critics and activists are ruthlessly silenced while cameras focus on Lewis Hamilton tearing past the competition on the track, and donning Bahraini dress off it.
As new management takes root in Formula One, fans have to ask themselves: do you want your sport to represent despotic countries? The Bahrain Grand Prix calls itself the place to be to enjoy the “sun, sea and sand”. Well, there are thousands in Bahrain who love the sun, sea and sand too – but are imprisoned for demanding their rights.
More will be imprisoned when the starting lights flash this weekend. Formula One has a responsibility to provide for the safety of these Bahraini lives. If Formula One cannot do that, then get the grand prix out of there.