Absorbing, mysterious; of infinite richness, this life - Virginia Woolf

Friday, April 20, 2012

Formula 1 - Bahrain Grand Prix 2012

Click to enlarge the picture

About an hour ago the internet hacking group Anonymous disrupted the official Formula 1 website ahead of this Sunday's scheduled F1 race in Manama. Calling down shame on officials and organisers of the race, who have decided to proceed with the event despite widespread protestsescalating unrest, alleged violent dispersal of protesters and police abuses, and reports that journalists who do not belong to sports news crews have been prevented from entering the country, the message also calls for the release of Abdulhadi and other political prisoners. Most satisfyingly for me personally, the message linked to Front Line's website for further information about Abdulhadi's situation. 

I presume that the interruption to the website and Anonymous' message won't last long online, so I wanted to preserve it here while I had the chance. I haven't paid much attention to Anonymous before (without knowing much about their activities I've questioned their radical politics while nonetheless enjoying what I've seen as the healthy sense of irreverence behind their pranks) but I can't help but enjoy this stunt. 

Firstly, it should catch some headlines and attention for the bigger issue of the overall situation in Bahrain (news of the attack was proliferating across my Facebook news feed and presumably spreading across Twitter within minutes of the start of the disruption). But more importantly, it may hopefully show up amongst the primary search result for F1 fans looking for listings of this week's race, many of whom are more likely to be ordinary sports punters than observers of international politics, and thus may learn a thing or two. In addition, F1 are - or should be - worried about their relationship with corporate sponsors who have been pressured about their support for the event by petitions and critical international news coverage. I am perfectly happy to see the temporary disappearance of a website promoting those sponsors as a legitimate form of civil disobedience. 

The question of the relationship between Bahrain's financial and public interests and Formula 1 is an interesting one. General belief has it that the authorities are keen to utilise the race as a means of signalling that Bahrain is back to normal and open for business as usual. Thanks to a reported $40 million hosting fee, the authorities stand to make very little if any financial profit from the event; the real profit lies in the investment value of promoting tiny Bahrain as an exotic, safe and cosmopolitan destination for both tourism and financial investment. Some excellent commentary by Jane Kinninmont in Foreign Policy yesterday questions the success of this policy, but provides consideration of the positions of a wide spectrum of Bahraini actors towards the race in a way which is far more useful and grey-scaled than much of the news coverage suggests (for instance Al-Wefaq, the main opposition party, support the event). 

The real surprise has been this unexpectedly insightful article written by veteran British F1 driver Damon Hill. Two weeks ago Hill was a lone dissenting voice amongst F1 insiders in calling for the race to be cancelled. I found the article ultimately disappointing, given Hill's eventual acquiescence to the idea of the event going ahead. His invocation of the power of sport to "to inspire the young to take up a challenge from which they will learn about themselves and the world" left me somewhat cold - multi-million dollar F1 isn't exactly bringing football to the ghetto, after all. But Hill drew on a wide range of opinion and viewpoints, showed surprising insight into the various issues involved, and did make very clear his particular misgivings about how the decision to go ahead and the criticism of the event has been handled by F1 as an institution. Tellingly, he mentions Bernie Ecclestone (who this afternoon stood beside Bahrain's Crown Prince on the track dismissing claims about violence as a media fabrication) as a man "who few dare to publicly disagree with. Perhaps we should, instead of just muttering under our breath, scared of losing our passes." Well, indeed. 

But the most salient point of both Hill and Kinninmont's articles is that ultimately, the race gives both the government, the political opposition, pro-democracy activists and disaffected youth an unprecedented opportunity to raise publicity of their respective positions. In other words, without the race, news coverage and public debate would not have returned to Bahrain (from Syria, from Libya, from fiscal rescue packages, from whatever else is happening in the world right now). Hill noted of "extreme" protesters, that "without F1, perhaps their cause would have had less of a hearing." Its a valid point, but ultimately in my view, used incorrectly in this context to assuage the guilty conscience of a genuinely well-intentioned objector returning to the fold. 

As for Abdulhadi? Today is Day 71 of his hunger strike. The best way to put this in context is to remember that Bobby Sands, the most well-known of the IRA hunger strikers, died after 66 days of fasting. 

After a serious scare for his health two weeks ago, he had been somewhat stable while receiving glucose and water via IV. However, on 9 April the Bahrain Supreme Judicial Council refused to transfer Abdulhadi to Denmark (he also holds Danish citizenship) despite concerted diplomatic efforts on his behalf. Reuters had a good article yesterday outlining the various pressures and interests that compel both sides in this mexican stand off, in which a life hangs in the balance: simply put, neither side is willing to back down and lose face at this point. I can see Abdulhadi's viewpoint being simply that this has provided him with the first and only opportunity to take any form of control over his body and his circumstances since his arrest one year ago, since the torture and the sexual assault, since the trial before a military court on baseless charges of terrorism. 

This afternoon, his daughters Maryam and Zainab reported on Twitter that during a brief phone call with his family, he announced his intention today to stop taking water and to refuse further IV treatment. He also requested a meeting with his lawyer in order to draw up his will, which was denied. Finally, he stressed that protesters should continue to protest peacefully if he should die. "...I don't want anyone to be hurt in my name". 

I don't know what this means or what his intentions are. I don't know what may be going on behind closed doors. I am very frightened for him. I can't imagine what his family are going through. And I have no idea what on earth his death could achieve. 

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