Richard Bath: ‘The debate surrounding Bahrain shouldn’t be about safety, it should be about whether it’s right’

POLITICS and sport, so the maxim has it, do not mix. Yet the situation in Bahrain should give us all pause for thought.

So far the long-running debate about whether the Bahrain Grand Prix should go ahead has been has been couched in terms of whether, in the face of threats to the race and riots on the streets, it is safe for the pampered glamour pusses of Formula One to visit one of the most densely populated nations on earth. That, however, misses the point spectacularly.

The debate should not be about whether Bernie Ecclestone et al will emerge in one piece after next week’s grand prix in the Persian Gulf kingdom, it should start with whether it is right to compete in a nation whose policies are just a kick in the grass away from the sort of racially-based policies that led to South Africa being internationally ostracised.

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In Bahrain, not only is the majority Shia population routinely discriminated against by a minority Sunni ruling clique whose position is unassailable (look up 2007’s Bandargate Scandal if you need an example), but when protests erupted last year there were targeted assassinations, widespread arrests and torture as the army from neighbouring Saudi Arabia was called in to violently crush all remaining Shia dissent.

Not that the outrage or the unrest has been quelled: last month, at the behest of a leading Shia cleric, 200,000 angry Bahrainis packed a four-lane highway between the towns of Duraz and Muksha in protest. An explosion damaged cars in the capital Manama on Thursday night and seven policemen were wounded by a bomb in what the interior minister described as “an act of terrorism”. As the decision to go ahead with the grand prix was announced, Bernie Ecclestone photos were torched on the streets of Manama, while the threats to the wellbeing of F1 visitors are sufficiently credible for teams such as Red Bull to take extraordinary security measures to protect their staff.

Ecclestone’s insistence that “the only people who can do anything about it [the Bahrain GP] is the national sporting authority in the country – unless the race gets withdrawn by them, we’ll be there, we don’t do politics or religion”, is bunkum. If either the rights holders, FIA or the teams’ organisation Fota wanted the race halted, then that would happen immediately. Ecclestone admitted as much earlier in the week when he said that the ball “was in the teams’ court”.

That said, there is no doubt that F1 is caught on the horns of a particularly spiky dilemma, especially as it also operates in other areas of the world where human rights are a distant afterthought. And there are more concrete considerations too: there are inevitably Bahraini jobs at stake, while last year’s decision not to race at the sparkly new track at Sakhir cost the industry an estimated £300 million, which neither the teams nor commercial rights holders CVC Capital Partners particularly appreciated.

Given all of the above, it’s hardly surprising that even the moneymaking F1 circus has been at pains to scrupulously examine its conscience in public. Underneath, they may be more obsessed about perception and dollars than they are about human rights, but at least there’s been a thorough grown-up debate on the subject.

The same has not been true for an even more pampered corps of sportsmen: our golfers. At least Formula One is big business for Bahrain, but this weekend has seen an invitational celebrity pro-am tournament featuring such goliaths of the links as Gianluca Vialli, Joe Montana, Tim Henman and Ruud Gullit. There are also some golfers turning up too, with Thomas Bjorn, Suzann Pettersen and Paul Casey all playing in the two-day IMG-arranged event.

But mainly the proceedings at Bahrain’s The Royal Golf Course are about Colin Montgomerie. The event has been organised by his agents, is being played on the course he designed and which bears his name, and he’s been the one insisting it’ll go ahead come what may. A little local unrest isn’t enough to stop Scotland’s finest topping up the pension; he says it would take a proper war to do that. “In my career of 20-odd years, we have only missed one tournament through conflict,” he boasted, “and that was in 1991 when the Dubai Desert Classic wasn’t held for obvious reasons [the Gulf War].”

Similar “obvious reasons”, this time violent political ferment, were to blame in January for Bahrain being forced to scrap its premier European Tour event – the Volvo Golf Champions event, which is part of the Tour’s “Desert Swing” in the Gulf states and which was held for the first time in 2011 – just as Formula One was forced to do last year.

Only, unlike F1, this event – and it’s not a “tournament” in any meaningful sense – was one where individual sportsmen got to exercise their consciences. In doing so, they all knew that this was all about the money. It’s not even as if there were ranking points on offer for the Seniors Tour, which Monty said he would never play but which he’ll join next year.

Now, it may well be that, after due consideration and appropriate heartache, Monty and his fellow competitors concluded that to cancel their lucrative little jaunt would be an almost political act, that it would appear as if they were giving in to intimidation, which would be fair enough.

Or perhaps it’s simply that when Monty thought about the unspeakably plush marbled halls of the Royal Bahrain Golf Club and the fat Middle Eastern wallets that financed his eponymous and reassuringly expensive championship golf course, Monty was, in his own words, reminded “of how much Bahrain has to offer”.