‘Money, power and politics are inherent to sporting events’: in Bahrain, the Formula One has become a site of protest. Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei tells us why.
In 2004, the Formula One came to Bahrain. The buzz of excitement at the completion of the racing track and the involvement of celebrity drivers was tangible. Bahrain finally had attained recognition in the international sporting calendar. Ever since, the glamorous Grand Prix has been the premier sporting event hosted by the tiny Gulf nation.
At the time, hardly anyone objected to the race, and I was no exception. The Grand Prix bore no connection to politics and human rights; for me it was no more than simple entertainment. The government promised that the Grand Prix would bring jobs, tourism and economic opportunities to the country. I paid little attention to sport but I was still drawn into the inescapable anticipation that had engulfed my friends.
This air of positivity has long been extinguished. Everything changed in 2011.
That year we, the Bahraini people, played our role in the Arab Spring. The government’s response to our peaceful demands for political change was brutal. I participated in the protests at the Pearl Roundabout, and I paid a harsh price for it by falling victim to the torture and imprisonment inflicted by the Bahraini authorities – as did many others. A state of emergency was declared. Martial law was implemented. Eventually, the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled.
It wasn’t until the following year that I realised the significance of this cancellation. The return of the Grand Prix in 2012 was met with significant opposition from those who had welcomed it so wholeheartedly eight years prior. Protesters argued vehemently against the race, urging Formula One to not ‘race on our blood’ The hunger strike of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, currently a political prisoner, was reported widely in international media. The country’s leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who is also imprisoned, used the Grand Prix as an opportunity to expose Bahrain’s crimes to the media. On the eve of the race, Salah Abbas, a father of five, was murdered by riot police for his involvement in the anti-government and Grand Prix protests. His death did not deter Formula One from conducting the race.
It was impossible not to pay attention to the spectacle. Sporting events were being used to whitewash human rights violations in my country, and I could not remain silent. Ever since then, I have worked to shed light on the facade of sports that is employed to distract vital international criticism from the crimes committed by the Al-Khalifa regime.
In 2012 I was granted political asylum in the UK, and co-founded the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) in London. The next year, I protested the Bahrain Grand Prix outside the Formula One headquarters in Knightsbridge. We wanted to hold the Formula One to account. The campaign was a success; the OECD found Formula One to be in breach of human rights due diligence in 2014. They had to adopt a human rights policy.
It was only a small victory in a highly sophisticated ‘system of injustice’, but I felt something was finally changing. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before I realised that this policy was nothing but rhetoric.
Najah Ahmed Yusuf was first detained in April 2017 for her social media activity, part of which criticised Bahrain’s hosting of the Grand Prix on Facebook. She was subjected to four days of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of officers from Bahrain’s National Security Agency, including sexual assault, rape threats, and threats that her sons would be killed. During her interview at the Public Prosecution Office, the authorities made every attempt to silence her concerns and dismiss her suffering. She was convicted to three years’ imprisonment.
Even though the Bahraini court referred to Najah’s involvement in the Formula One protests in its judgment as a contributing factor for her conviction, Formula One chose to deflect its responsibility for her treatment by distancing itself from her plight.
When Nabeel Rajab was sentenced in 2018 to five years imprisonment over tweets, the Bahraini government published paid articles in the Telegraph to distract from the media outcry on the unlawful sentence against him. One of those articles was titled: ‘Why the Bahrain Grand Prix is the most exciting fixture on the F1 calendar’. This is just one example of how sport can be used as PR tool. Bahrain portrays the Grand Prix as a place where people from all over the world can enjoy ‘sun, sea and sand’. What it fails to say is that there are plenty of people in Bahrain who would love to enjoy the sun, sea and sand too. Instead, they are in prison for demanding their rights.
Instead of sticking to its human rights policy, Formula One has chosen to affiliate itself with a dictatorship. Those who criticise their sporting events can be locked up in Bahraini prisons at the mercy of a tyrannical power. The biggest motor sport organisation in the world is complicit in human rights abuses.
Some might argue that the Bahrain Grand Prix is good for the people because it invigorates the economy. It is anything but that. The truth is that business is prioritised at the expense of human suffering. It only helps the powerful. Money, power and politics are inherent to sporting events, yet the veil of economic progress, entertainment and sporting frenzy only serves to cover up a far darker reality: in Bahrain, prisons are filled with those who dare voice their opinions.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei is a Bahraini activist who was forced to flee to the UK in exile after suffering imprisonment and torture for defending democracy and human rights in Bahrain during the Arab Spring in 2011. He is currently a refugee in the UK, and the Director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, an NGO he co-funded in 2013. In 2015, the Bahraini Government revoked Sayed Ahmed’s citizenship in response to his human rights activities, rendering him stateless. The judicial harassment his family-in-law is being subjected to such as imprisonment and torture in Bahrain is also in retaliation to his human rights advocacy internationally.
Photo credit: Moosa Mohammed