Bahrain needs healing? F1 needs to rethink

This evening it has been confirmed that Bahrain will not now play host to the opening race of the 2011 calendar, due to ongoing political strife in the island kingdom.

The F1 circus, led by Bernie Ecclestone, had the decision made for them by the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, who issued the following statement:

“At the present time the country’s entire attention is focused on building a new national dialogue for Bahrain.”

“Although Bernie Ecclestone had graciously made clear that a decision on the race was entirely Bahrain’s to make and was not yet required, we felt it was important for the country to focus on immediate issues of national interest and leave the hosting of Bahrain’s Formula 1 race to a later date.

“I would like to extend my personal gratitude to Bernie Ecclestone for his support and understanding.

“After the events of the past week, our nation’s priority is on overcoming tragedy, healing divisions and rediscovering the fabric that draws this country together; reminding the world of the very best that Bahrain is capable of as a nation once again united.”

Bernie Ecclestone then provided his own statement:

“It is sad that Bahrain has had to withdraw from the race, we wish the whole nation well as they begin to heal their country.

“The hospitality and warmth of the people of Bahrain is a hallmark of the race there, as anyone who has been at a Bahrain Grand Prix will testify. We look forward to being back in Bahrain soon.”

And finally, Renault team boss Eric Boullier said he supported the decision too.

“The recent situation in Bahrain has been very difficult for the country. We feel the decision taken by the Crown Prince is wise and we fully support it,” he said.

“The Bahrain Grand Prix has always been welcomed with enthusiasm from the Bahraini people, and we’re looking forward to going back there when they have healed their country.”

There can be absolutely no doubt that going to Bahrain would have been the wrong decision at this pivotal point in the country’s history. But it doesn’t seem altogether clear that Ecclestone and Boullier understand why. Going there would not be bad because of the need for Bahrain to be ‘healed’, as they both parroted from the Crown Prince’s statement. Nor would it be unthinkable because of the prospect of terrorist attack, which, although doubtless a horrific possibility, is one that might unfortunately be envisaged in many places that F1 visits.

No, going to Bahrain would have been terrible in 2011 because it would have lent credibility to a government that is now an unwanted relic of the old way of doing things in the Middle East. It is said repeatedly that the majority Shia population of the tiny kingdom is discriminated against when it comes to all manner of things, not least jobs. It is certainly true that the Sunni minority, which rule the country, are the richer. And what is worst of all, six people were killed by the government’s forces last week, and ten more have mysteriously disappeared.

This is a time of great change in the Middle East. Pro-democracy movements are rising and running riot from North West Africa across. Sport’s significance pales when compared to the struggle the people of the region are undertaking. And it is high time F1’s powers-that-be acknowledged that the parlour games they play with the old, rich elite are an anachronism. Their patronising, flaccid agreement that a ‘healing’ process is probably best sounds wet at best. At worst, it sits very uncomfortably compared to the magnitude of events.