With its decision to go ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend, despite the ongoing violence surrounding anti-government demonstrations, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) has put Formula One in a lose-lose situation.
That's the opinion of Anthony Skinner, the director responsible for the Middle East and North Africa for U.K-based risk analysis firm Maplecroft.
“F1 will look bad even if violence does not take place,” he said.
“And a crackdown to ensure a greater degree of security would reflect very badly on organizers and sponsors. That the event is taking place at all really does not reflect well on FIA.
“In short, FIA's statement is in tune with the official position that Bahrain is open to business as usual and that 'normality' prevails. But it does not correspond with reality. F1 is without doubt taking necessary security measures, but these are not necessarily guaranteed to prevent disruption to the event.”
Maplecroft's analysis shows that the issues that have fuelled unrest since the protests began in February 2011 remain in place. Regular clashes continue between state security forces and opponents of the regime in villages surrounding the capital, Manama. The Sakhir Circuit that hosts the grand prix is just south of Manama. This month, the U.S. government also expressed concern over violence in Bahrain surrounding the pro-democracy protests.
Although many felt the race would be cancelled for a second consecutive year due to the unrest, the FIA issued a statement on Friday saying that the race was on.
F1's governing body said that its president, Jean Todt, led a fact-finding mission to the Kingdom last November and met with several Bahraini groups, as well as ambassadors from European Union countries.
“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,” the statement read.
“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. Based on the current information the FIA has at this stage, it is satisfied that all the proper security measures are in place for the running of a Formula One World Championship event in Bahrain.”
Essentially, last Friday's decision by the sport's governing body to move forward with the Apr. 22 race creates three likely outcomes.
The first would see something untoward occur during the F1 weekend, such as violence, injuries and deaths, and the sport and the FIA would suffer a huge blow to its reputation. The second has a government crackdown on potential protesters causing further human rights abuses during grand prix weekend. The last, and least likely, would have all Bahranis holding hands and welcoming F1 as the purveyors of peace and unity, which is how the Gulf kingdom's authorities have billed the race.
Bahrain using the race as an agent of political change seems to have the FIA breaking its own bylaws in sanctioning the grand prix, since it is not supposed to get involved in any politics. Article 1 of the FIA Statute says it “shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect.”
Considering that Bahrain authorities have declared that the F1 race will be used as a unifying force inside the country, holding the race appears to be a textbook contravention of the FIA article requiring that its events be non-political.
Race slogans connected to the event include “UniF1ed” and “UniF1cation”.
Funny how the obviously political intent of that campaign flies under the FIA's radar, though six years ago a simple podium breach saw Turkish organizers fined $5-million. Turkey was punished after it allowed a leader from Cyprus to present a trophy at the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix as a way to underline its claim to the Northern half of the Mediterranean island.
At the time, the FIA reacted virulently to the transgression, launching a full investigation and stating that “political neutrality is fundamental to the FIA’s role as the governing body of international motor sport. No compromise or violation of this neutrality is acceptable.”
With the Turkish case in mind, it's difficult to see how it could be perfectly acceptable to use an F1 event as a tool to mend political fences in the midst of violent anti-government protests.
Perhaps the stance could partly be attributed to the fact that the FIA's list of independent experts didn't seem to include Skinner or human rights watchdog Amnesty International, which released a statement on Bahrain shortly after the FIA announced the race would go ahead.
Amnesty International insisted there is much at stake for Bahrain, which wants to use the race to show the kingdom is stable and secure, something that may help it repel international criticism. With daily protests bringing a violent police response, including the “reckless” use of tear gas with fatal results, Amnesty International feels F1 is playing right into the government's hand.
“Holding the Grand Prix in Bahrain in 2012 risks being interpreted by the government of Bahrain as symbolizing a return to business as usual,” its statement reads.
“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.”
Amnesty International also said it continues to receive reports of torture and other ill-treatment by the Bahraini authorities, along with complaints about excessive force by police. It estimates that the number of deaths since protests began last February has reached at least 60.
While the FIA says it is satisfied with the security that will be provided to the participants, it may also have given the opposition a lightning rod for action.
Skinner feels opponents of the regime will likely want to take full advantage of the media glare during the event to draw international attention to their cause, especially with the world preoccupied with unrest in Syria and the nuclear threat of Iran.
“FIA and the Bahraini authorities are underplaying the risks at hand — Bahrain remains vulnerable to an intensification of unrest,” Skinner said.
“Commercial entities which in any way associate with the Formula 1 event risk reputational damage. The February 14th Youth Coalition (named for the day that the uprising began in 2011) has sought to exploit this risk, stating that organizers would be considered as part of the [ruling]al Khalifa family’s 'bloody regime, responsible for shedding the blood of the sons of Bahrain.' The connection could not have been stated in starker terms.”
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