The decision by Formula One to go ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix while the country is still in a state of ongoing unrest since the violent suppression of demonstrations which began against the Khalifa regime last year, is being seen as an international endorsement of the Kingdom’s autocratic rule. Bernie Ecclestone’s statement that “there’s nothing happening [in Bahrain]” and his assertion that he knows “people who live there and its all very quiet and peaceful” has definitely been useful for the Bahraini authorities in their attempt to proclaim that its business as usual. However, no one should be surprised at Ecclestone’s lack of moral scruples in holding an international entertainment event in the midst of a crackdown that has seen scores of people arrested, tortured, and in some cases convicted for 15 years for giving medical help to those wounded in the protests. After all, here is a man who allegedly has previously suggested that despotism is underrated, that Saddam Hussein was the only man who could control Iraq, and that Hitler may have been his favorite historical dictator. It may be that the Khalifa regime is not actually autocratic enough for his tastes.
However, the FIA’s decision to return to Bahrain needs to be taken within context. For all intents and purposes, Bahrain remains the British protectorate that it has been since the 19th century. This is why the monarch of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, is an invited guest to the Queen of England’s diamond jubilee celebrations later this year. It is also the reason why the British Prime Minister David Cameron rolled out the red carpet for the crown prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, only weeks after he had overseen the violent crackdown of protestors in the Bahraini capital Manama, with the aid of Saudi and other GCC troops. He then met the King personally in Downing Street six months later, who visited to get “British advice” on how to implement reforms in the country.
One can only wonder the kind of advice Britain has been giving to its client regime – to start with, in the period soon after the height of the protests in 2011 the British government approved the sale of more than £1 million worth of military equipment to the Bahraini regime. This included licenses for gun silencers, weapons sights, rifles and other equipment, all of which could conceivably be being used against their own population. Not a single export license to Bahrain was rejected, despite a crackdown on protestors denounced by international human rights organizations. In other words, Britain has been, and continues to, provide the weapons that could be used by the regime in their crackdown against opposition.
However, aid has not been limited to military sales. Policing expertise has also been exported to Bahrain, with former Scotland Yard “counter-terrorism” chief John Yates being currently employed to advise the Bahraini regime on “police reform”. (Yates, for those who don’t know, resigned in disgrace from Scotland Yard for his role in the Murdoch media phone hacking scandal). His employment by the Bahraini regime follows in the tradition of British ex-spooks being given a job by the Khalifas, with Ian Henderson – formerly a Colonial Police Officer responsible for suppressing the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya – hired as the head of state security in Bahrain for more than three decades. During his time, he was accused by political dissidents and international human rights organizations of overseeing, and participating, in the torture of opposition figures, as covered in this 2002 documentary – “Blind eye to the Butcher” (Henderson is apparently living out his retirement as a guest of the Khalifa’s in Bahrain). Yates does not (yet) have the reputation of Henderson, though his comments whitewashing the torture allegations against the Bahraini regime are certainly not a good start. His statements that the police could use live fire in retaliation against protestors hardly endorse his previous comments about the security situation in the country, but consistency is not one of Yate’s known traits.
With the deep connections between on the one hand British Businesses and British establishment, and on the other hand the Bahraini regime, it is clear that the client regime remains little more than a British protectorate, independent in name only. In such a context, the green light given by the FIA and Ecclestone is only taking its lead from the bill of health that the British government has given to the Khalifa ruling family and its autocratic rule, and is simply a reflection of putting British interests before the will of the local population. This is a tale often repeated across the Middle East and other areas of former British colonies, and is likely to continue as long as the ruling powers in these regions remain largely subservient to the post-colonial set-up.
Reza Pankhurst is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, where he previously completed his Masters degree in the History of International Relations. He was a political prisoner of the previous Mubarak regime in Egypt, spending almost 4 years in jail between 2002 and 2006. His forthcoming book is entitled “The Inevitable Caliphate?” (Hurst/ Columbia University Press 2012) – further details of which can be seen at facebook.com/theinevitablecaliphate. He can be contacted at [email protected]