Formula One: why we’re watching Bahrain for all the wrong reasons
As the sporting world prepares to turn their attention to Bahrain on 22 April for its annual Formula One Grand Prix, Kristian Ulrichsen examines the impact of the race on the country
08 Mar 12

Bahrain Grand PrixAs the sporting world prepares to turn their attention to Bahrain on 22 April for its annual Formula One Grand Prix, Kristian Ulrichsen examines the impact of the race on the country

World attention will focus on Bahrain on 22 April when the kingdom hosts its annual Formula One Grand Prix. The race was cancelled in 2011 owing to the violent unrest as the ruling Al-Khalifa family crushed a pro-democracy movement with the assistance of forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Following intense pressure from the Bahraini regime to get the race reinstated into the 2012 calendar, the announcement in January 2012 that twenty-nine workers sacked for participating in the 2011 protests would be offered their jobs back was seen as instrumental in reassuring the motorsports authorities that a semblance of normality had returned to the island state.

Yet troubling evidence suggests that the workers’ “reinstatement” is merely part of a larger strategy by the PR-obsessed Bahraini regime to make gestures which turn out on closer examination to be largely meaningless. The workers were arrested last spring during the merciless crackdown on opposition to the ruling family, and many were allegedly mistreated in custody. Only three of the 29 agreed to return to work in January as the terms of their return were deemed to be highly unfair and partisan. Twelve others refused to reassume their jobs on the grounds that the contracts they were asked to sign failed to restore lost pay and benefits, and required them to drop cases being prepared for unfair dismissal.

The employees at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), are not alone in seeking redress. Around 2000 workers were dismissed during the pro-democracy protests in 2011 and many have complained that they have been forced to accept worse conditions with little or no reimbursement for lost earnings. As to the allegations of mistreatment, the BIC issued a bizarre non-denial denial in an inserted addendum to a Guardian article on the issue. This stated, implausibly, that “if any of its employees were beaten or otherwise badly treated by BIC security staff” — which it denies — “it would have been without BIC’s knowledge, instructions or orders”. Like the violent response to the uprising more broadly, which the regime sought to blame on the actions of (presumably renegade) junior officers, there has been absolutely no accountability for the events that are too well-documented for the regime to deny.

All the while the Bahraini regime continues to refuse access to human rights groups and international non-governmental organisations. After representatives of two organisations were denied entry in early-January, the regime asked them to return in late-February. Now, however, they are being asked to delay visiting until July in order to give the government time to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). This continuing failure to face international scrutiny fuels the perception that the Bahraini regime has something to hide, and does nothing to boost the confidence of its international partners that it is serious about making meaningful reforms to its political structures.

This matters because the Formula One Grand Prix is in many ways the jewel in Bahrain’s crown. Aside from bringing in economic benefits to a country suffering the cost of the ruling family’s unwillingness to share power, its going ahead would send a powerful signal of approval for Bahrain’s regime from the international community. This would be appropriate had the government responded to the BICI with mature and far-reaching policy changes that reflected the gravity of its findings of systematic abuse and over-reaction. However, with the regime still dissembling and with most announcement of ‘reform’ unravelling upon closer inspection, it is very hard indeed to make that case.

Kristian Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and expert on the Gulf region. He tweets from @Dr_Ulrichsen.