This weekend, Formula One’s Grand Prix will be held in Bahrain. Despite the escalation in protests by Bahrain’s Shia opposition, F1 head Bernie Ecclestone has stated that unless the race is cancelled by the national sporting authority, it will go on as scheduled. Cancelled last year because of unrest, the F1 race is a major international attraction and has brought significant attention to the tiny island kingdom.
In the lead up to the race, al-Wefaq, the country’s main opposition party, and international human rights groups have staged protests, arguing that F1 should drop Bahrain as the location for the Grand Prix as it provides the government of Bahrain with legitimacy for its alleged abuses.
However, F1 is not a political entity. As Ecclestone stated last week, “We (F1) don’t get involved in politics in a country.” Considering F1 operates in China, a country infamous for its oppression, Eccleston’s position is hardly surprising. It’s not Formula 1’s job to hold Bahrain or any other government accountable for its governing practices.
To the government of Bahrain’s credit, no other country affected by the “Arab Spring” has made such strides toward reform. While the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) do not address the political reforms that al-Wefaq demands, they are nevertheless a start to a long and arduous recovery process. The government of Bahrain has repeatedly stated that the door is open to al-Wefaq for dialogue, but so far no effort has been taken by the opposition to engage.
The government’s internal dynamics have also complicated the reform process. King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa and his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, are forward-thinking men who favor of dialogue and reform. However, the prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who also happens to be the king’s uncle, and other influential members of the court oppose reform.
Some of the reforms recommended by the BICI report last November can be implemented relatively quickly, but others will take time. Yet time is not something the government has in its favor. While Manama is peaceful, Shia villages have experienced an escalation of violence. A car bombing earlier this month in El Eker is a worrying sign that hostility has reached new levels.
Hardline Sunni factions are also becoming more aggressive as the crisis continues. Graffiti bearing al-Qaeda slogans has been found in the mainly Sunni district of Muharraq. Last month, the opposition blamed the death of a citizen journalist on Sunni militiamen loyal to the government. And last week, a Shia-owned supermarket was ransacked.
Bahrain is a crucial ally to the United States, as the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Manama. This strategic alliance is critical for containing the mounting Iranian military threat and protecting oil exports shipped through the Strait of Hormuz. Bahrain has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to international security through its participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration has taken neutral stance on Bahrain’s current conditions.
While the theme of the Grand Prix is “UniF1ed,” Bahrain is anything but. Reinstating peace will require strong leadership from King Hamad—not his uncle. Furthermore, delays in reform and open and honest dialogue will only prolong the crisis.