Zehra Zaidi was a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament in South West England at the 2009 elections and has been a development consultant on governance and democratisation for UNICEF and the British Council. She has also acted as an adviser to Andrew Mitchell, the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.
David Cameron is absolutely right. Bahrain is not Syria. However, Britain’s old allies in the small island Gulf principality have badly handled the wave of protests that dominoed their way to Bahrain since the Arab Spring began. Britain needs to step up and use its influence to encourage the Al Khalifa family to make reforms acceptable to its people, where around 70-75% of its population is from the Shia sect (although this figure may have reduced since the ruling family’s policy of granting naturalisation to Sunni migrants).
It is important Britain continues – even ratchets up – its diplomatic overtures, because when we criticise Assad’s ever brutal regime in Syria, the West risks being accused of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Bahrain. Moreover, because of the perceived discrimination faced by Bahraini Shias, as noted in an Economist article last year, “Amid such sharpening polarisation, accusations that Iran is encouraging its fellow Shias in Bahrain to rise up as a fifth column risk self-fulfilment”.
The impressive MP for Bournemouth East, Conor Burns, and the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bahrain, wrote a passionate article on Conservative Home last year and made note of the Royal Commission launched to examine what happened in the streets and repair the damage to Bahrain’s reputation and internal cohesion. However, since then, few of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) have been implemented. Leading human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja still has not been released and risks dying in jail as his hunger strike continues. According to the BICI, Khawaja’s jaw was broken in numerous places after his arrest, he was blindfolded and handcuffed in hospital, he was discharged against the recommendation of his doctor, placed in solitary confinement in a small cell and allegedly experienced regular beatings and sexual assault at night. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience, and Denmark, where he also holds citizenship, has called for his release. Suffice to say, Khawaja's death would be calamitous for the regime and a stain on all our consciences.
Instead, the impasse has continued. Instead, we have reached a situation where tomorrow’s Formula 1 Grand Prix risks being a sideshow where the real danger is not on the track but in the banks of protesters, who now have a focal point to vent their frustration and agitation. On the eve of the race, a man’s body has been found in the capital Manama, where protesters had clashed with security forces yesterday.
Too often, sports can become a victim of politics. This is deplorable. And the rules of Formula 1 set out their policy quite clearly. Article 1 of the FIA statutes says: "The FIA shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect." But Bernie Ecclestone’s comments on 13 April, 2012 that “There's nothing happening. I know people who live there and it's all very quiet and peaceful” were on the same day police used tear gas and bird shot to break up riots. Holding a race that is polarising opinion and becoming a focal point for protesters may, as noted by Damon Hill, also be deemed to constitute "taking action in this respect".
Many Bahrainis and expatriates are excited about the F1 race – it is indeed a glorious spectacle. But for protesters, the Grand Prix gives a stamp of approval to the regime and a reward for doing very little in the way of reform. The problem has been that by downplaying the gravity of the situation, F1 bosses risk being accused by protesters and others of collusion with authorities, and at the very least naive and misinformed.
So where do things now stand? Now, the show must go on. I endorse the Bahrain Crown Prince’s statement that to cancel now would empower extremists and set a dangerous precedent for other sporting events. However – and this is where I feel there has been massive miscalculation – the Grand Prix that was cancelled last year due to the Arab Spring protests (13 March 2011 would have been the season opening race last year), could not have gone ahead this year either, for the simple fact that the country is in a state of emergency and the security of drivers, mechanics, journalists and the spectators could not be guaranteed. The line from the F1 governing body could have been that Grand Prix will return once the violence has stopped (what a celebration of country unity that would have been). As it is, teams have been left shaken by petrol bombs, with practice interrupted for some. It does not bear thinking about how much worse the situation could get as the race becomes a magnet for protest.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has warned that Bahrain is "a timebomb" and that "beneath a façade of normalisation, Bahrain is sliding towards another eruption of violence". Conor Burns admirably stated that: “Bahrain must, of course, understand that Britain has a real expectation of progress on human rights and a determination that Bahrain’s recommitment to reform is genuine. We will criticise when it is necessary and we will encourage when that is positive. We will always be the candid friend”. Such forthright advice is needed now, more than ever.