Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix is a win-win for protesters
There has been widespread discussion as to whether the F1 race in Bahrain should be going ahead this weekend. One driver has been vocal about his concerns. Others have expressed no opinion. Like Officer Barbrady in South Park, Bernie Ecclestone has told us to “move along, nothing to see here”. Protesters have disagreed with him. The arguments have raged online, and the indications are that they will continue to rage in the streets. But I can’t help that think that this is a battle that the protesters, quite emphatically, have already won.
Huge sporting events, if not inherently political, are PR exercises like no other. The Olympics and the World Cup are the ultimate symbols of national prestige, and F1 isn’t too far behind either of these. To host an F1 race is to say: we are supreme on the world stage. It’s the ultimate way of impressing your international neighbours, of keeping up with the global Joneses.
It seems that the staging of this race was always going to backfire on Bahrain. For some time now, the state has experienced considerable and often violent tension between the ruling Sunni minority and the Shia majority, which was so intense that it led to the cancellation of last year’s race. The kingdom’s rulers then found themselves in a particular bind this year. Either they cancelled the contest again, losing both face and revenue, or they ploughed ahead in defiance of their opponents, enduring the uncomfortable scrutiny of the world’s media in the run-up to the event.
Faced with two difficult options, they chose the latter. I was interested to read a quote by the activist Nabeel Rajab, where he said that “because of crimes committed last year Bahrain was in international isolation. Now Formula One is used as a PR tool to come out of international isolation. The race is helping the ruling family.”
Actually, I am not sure that the race is helping the ruling family. You see, holding a huge sporting event in a country during a time of civil unrest is an awkward thing. It’s a bit like inviting everyone to a drinks party in your living room, whilst every now and then they can hear muffled screams coming from upstairs.
Further to Mr. Rajab’s point, the protesters are able to use Formula One as a tool for international exposure for their cause. It is an annual gift to them: perhaps the only week every year that this small state, with just over a million inhabitants, passes hundreds of millions of lips. Meanwhile, for journalists worldwide, this race is a news hook from the Gods. All of a sudden, any Bahrain article that had been gathering dust for months is now fresh copy. During the race, when many eyes will be on the TV screens but many more will be on Twitter, the #Bahrain hashtag can be appropriated by any protester with a smartphone or laptop to tweet articles or videos about the political situation within the country.
So it is that, in the age of social media, Bahrain will be known globally as a land with a glitzy sporting event and a mass of people asking for profound reform or outright revolution, some of whom are walking unarmed into a hail of bullets or starving to death for it. For better or worse, that is its brand; and in our age of social media, it was a conflict over reputation that the protesters were always going to win.Tagged in: Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Bahrain, Bernie Ecclestone, F1, FIA, formula 1, formula one, Officer Barbrady, south park
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