Enrichment process

Bahrain: Cars plus human rights plus the Internet equals a magic formula

In one of those bizarre and seemingly random collisions between social media and the real world the Kingdom of Bahrain looked like it was going to miss out on the chance of seeing a Formula 1 Grand Prix this year.

But with the green light having just been given, petrol heads in the tiny island state will actually get to see some of their product burned instead of just exported.

The row over the Bahrain round of the F1 championship is the standard case of “does sport equal politics?” The uprising that began there last year saw Saudis and Emirati forces invited in to quell protests. The basis of the ongoing discontent is the second-class treatment that the majority Shi’ite population receives while the Sunni minority get an easier ride. Shi’ites are effectively blocked from advancing to the higher levels of the civil and military structure and protestors are prone to being rounded up and being asked to help the police with their enquiries.

With protests far from over and the lid barely on the simmering Shi’a pot, a lot of noise was made about cancelling the Bahrain round of the Grand Prix. Last year’s event was stopped due to the actual civil disorder that was taking place, but it was more out concern for the safety of visitors than some sort of grand moral statement.

Protests in Bahrain February 2011.

The discussion this year was fuelled by statements from groups like Human Rights Watch that allowing such a prestigious event to go ahead was an endorsement of the repressive Bahraini monarchy. Due to some magic process of the Internet, slacktivism and a media seemingly bored of writing about Syria, this new Middle East story seemed to accelerate in its significance.

But what is to be lost or gained from the race being cancelled? Will calling it off help to dislodge King Hamad? Unlikely. But will the green light be seen as a nod and a wink from the rest of the world that Bahrain need make no reforms in its internal affairs? Also doubtful.

At some point it’s just sport and a sport that has very little connection with the real world. Most of the globe will carry out their business on April 22 without even being aware there were cars on the track in Bahrain, or indeed where the place even is. If the oil stopped flowing (or was blocked from being sold), people would be more inclined to notice.

And it’s not as if F1 has some sort of legacy of political conscience. There have been South African grands prix, Chinese ones, Turkish ones, many years of apartheid-era South African events and Argentinean rounds right through the years of the Dirty War. So pretending that the sport suddenly has a role to play in raising human rights issues is laughable.

Anyway, maybe all the events should just be moved to countries that are providing teams or drivers or those that have some traditional association with the sport. I mean what has such a ruinously expensive and blatant statement of crass fuel consumption got to do with a Persian Gulf state anyway?

Oh. Wait a sec…