Saturday, 21 April 2012

Grand Prix At Too Great A Price?

Thousands have taken to the streets of Bahrain, as the country plays host to this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix. Although many have called for its cancellation, it is not so much the race itself to which they object, but the Sunni government that granted the permit. Representing a minority in numbers, they hold the majority of the power, status, and wealth, all of which would be cemented, if not enhanced, by a successful staging of what would be the country’s premier sporting event. Small wonder therefore, that the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and Bernie Ecclestone, the crown prince of petrol-heads, have came out in a unified display of commitment to the race, albeit with differing justifications.

Against a backdrop of rising civil unrest, which has seen members of the Force India team ask to go home after they were caught up in the disturbances, the Crown Prince said; “I believe this race is a force for good, it unites many people from many different religious backgrounds.” His comments mark a stark contrast to those of Bahrain’s senior Shia cleric who condemned the crackdown that has accompanied the Grand Prix. The “force for good” will sadly not be witnessed by the many international journalists denied entry to the country to report on the growing tensions.

“It is nothing to do with us what happens in the country,” was the hi-light of Bernie Ecclestone’s amoral musings. The F1 Chief Executive was also quoted as saying it was not “in his power” to call it off. In reality such impotence is likely to be purely self-imposed, as anti-government protests led to last year’s race being cancelled. Alleged human rights abuses continue, according to the banned Bahrain Freedom Movement, claims supported by Amnesty International. Indeed, the Grand Prix itself is likely to coincide with the funeral of a protester allegedly beaten to death by security forces.

Paradoxically, it is the very Grand Prix to which so many of the protesters are opposed, that has proven their unlikely ally. The eyes of the world are again on Bahrain, bringing an international spotlight to internal calls for social and political reform, while attempts to stifle media coverage serve only to sharpen its focus. The Guardian reported a survey carried out for the Bahrain Economic Development Board, which found that 77% of those questioned actually welcomed the Grand Prix. To the governing elite it brings wealth and prestige, to those striving for reform it brings a platform for protest, and to the rest of us the question; if we know the hand signing the cheque has blood on it, should we really be taking the money?

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