'What human rights? - I don't know what they are.' Bernie Ecclestone could hardly have made a worse case for himself, but those were the words he chose to defend his decision to hold the Formula 1 in Bahrain this Sunday, flying in the face of trenchant criticism from Amnesty International and MPs. Sir Jackie Stewart, a former F1 champion laughably said that calling for the race to be moved was 'out of order' and that protests should not 'intimidate the police'. If you trail BBC Sport, you will find it difficult to work out why anyone should consider moving the event, one article made no mention of the human rights abuses or the huge controversy about whether repressive regimes should host F1.
Andy Slaughter MP, told the BBC: "There is a close relationship between the race and repression by a regime that is using F1 to try and establish normalcy." Since pro-democracy uprisings began in 2011, 72 protestors have been killed by government forces whilst over a hundred people have been arrested this month alone. Last November three men were jailed for "insulting" King Hamad on Twitter, while last month six more people were arrested over their tweets about the king.
This has become a debate about 'whether or not sport is above politics', as if such a vacuous and asinine belief needed any further discrediting. Such was the argument offered by some English cricket fans in 1968, who thought a Test series against South Africa should still go ahead despite the apartheid regime barring the black Englishman Basil d'Oliveira from competing. More recently it has been used by supporters of the Israeli state, or more accurately supporters of its brutal occupation of Palestine, who are using the UEFA U21 Championships next year as a PR exercise for a state that has detained Palestinian footballers for years without trial. After awarding the World Cup simultaneously to Qatar and Russia, regimes that criminalize gay rights and ban gay pride events respectively, FIFA President Sepp Blatter's poor apologia was that gay fans simply 'should refrain from sexual activities'. Whilst many sports stars have proved staunch defenders of freedoms and rights in the past, a culture of 'not our problem' still grips the likes of powerful men in suits, 'the blazers' such as Blatter and Ecclestone, the latter of which now wants to extend brutal Bahrain's F1 contract by a further five years.
But this sport versus politics debate obscures a far more important, and altogether more difficult issue: why is the Bahraini dictatorship so close to our own government? and what are we to do about it? Just last Thursday, the British Embassy in Manama, Bahrain's capital, held a dinner to celebrate the Queen's birthday, where Ambassador Iain Lindsay spoke, 'In the last year we have seen strong progress in the bilateral relationship with Bahrain which saw visits to the UK by His Majesty The King and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince.' Unfortunately he is all too correct. Although Bahrain's King (or dictator, as unelected rulers are usually referred) chose not to attend the Royal Wedding last year, Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera that protesters were expecting the British to take a "tough stance," rather than invite those accused of grievous human rights abuses to the high-profile celebrations. Our knowledge of the familiar relations between the ruling Bahraini royals and our own aristo-military establishment were further enhanced when it was revealed that Sandhurst military academy had accepted a £3m donation from Bahrain's King, a decision Jeremy Corbyn MP labelled as 'disgraceful'.
But beneath the royal weddings, Formula One races and other events that bore many normal people (myself included), the Anglo-Bahraini relationship is purely material. Bahrain has at least ten years of oil reserves left, and produces 40,000 barrels a day, representing a serious resource pool for British energy needs. The US-UK relationship is also important here, as Bahrain hosts a 5,000 strong US Air Force military base that was used in the bombing of Iraq during the Anglo-American invasion. British arms manufacturers sell a number of crowd control products to the Bahrain government, including "CS hand grenades, demolition charges, smoke canisters and thunderflashes". The British establishment, pro-war, pro-arms trade, pro-oil, requires the co-operation of Bahrain's own oligarchic ruling family.
In Britain we have allowed our bizarre love of the monarchy and lazy assumption our politicians 'wouldn't stoop that low' to preclude us from seeing that the Royal family have made a serious, if not uncharacteristic mistake of jumping into bed with a repressive regime, whilst our politicians holiday and receive gifts at the Bahrainis' expense. It is not enough to scapegoat Ecclestone and his F1 mob for doing what the British establishment have been doing for far too long: Gleefully profiting from and benefitting from a dubious foreign friendship, wagging the finger at repression with one hand and then swapping oil and guns with the other.
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