(Updated: It turns out, that F1 reversed course again. Apparently, the vote last week to reinstate the Bahrain race violated FIA rules. Mr. Ecclestone told the BBC today there will be no race in Bahrain this year.)
Bahrain's Sunni monarch may have called in mercenaries and Saudi troops to stamp out calls for democracy in his wealthy kingdom, tortured activists demanding more political freedom, and systematically discriminated against members of the country's Shiite majority.
But the mandarins of auto racing have a message for King Hamad al-Khalifa and his entourage: "Gentlemen, start your engines!"
Syria and Libya may be facing growing international isolation for their own domestic crackdowns, but Bahrain, a close American ally that hosts the US Fifth Fleet and has the full backing of Saudi Arabia, is back in business.
Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone's global money machine (it turned a $140 million profit last year), was forced to postpone its scheduled race this spring in Bahrain because of the country's democracy protests and the government's violent crackdown. But F1 has put Bahrain back on the calendar for December, and teams like Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull, their cars festooned with advertising for global companies like Vodafone, Total, and Pirelli, are expected to race.
Why the change of heart? A recommendation from a commissioner of FIA, global motor sports' governing body, whose view of recent events in Bahrain and the human rights situation there is starkly at odds with generally accepted reality. (Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy posted the FIA report and wrote about it yesterday).
FIA commissioner Carlos Gracia helpfully starts his report on his May 30 and 31 visit to Bahrain by recounting his meeting with the minister of tourism where he learned that "from a Cultural (sic) point of view, nothing has changed." He highlights a planned summer tourism promotion dubbed the "Victory of Joy."
He then moves on to the question of crackdown. He recounts his meeting with Interior Minister and royal family member Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, from whom he learned that "initially peaceful protests turned quickly into a very aggressive situation ... which saw brutal attacks on the police, resulting in four policemen being killed and 180 were injured." A hospital was "targeted" by protesters and Mr. Gracia relates that the situation "pushed police to act forcibly in order to restore security." No mention is made anywhere in his report of the at least 30 demonstrators who have been killed.
In his conclusion recommending a return for F1, he writes that he found an "atmosphere of total calm and stability" and that "life in Bahrain is completely normal again."
He should tell that to Ayet al-Gormezi, whose story was told by Caryle Murphy yesterday. In March, Ms. Gormezi was arrested, beaten, tortured with electric shocks, and had a toilet brush forced into her mouth. She's currently awaiting trial for participating in democracy protests and publicly criticizing the king or, as Bahrain has it, "breaching public security." Most Bahrainis that Ms. Murphy spoke with for the story asked her not to use their real names, fearing government reprisals.
At the end of May, as F1 was coming to the conclusion that all was well in Bahrain, Human Rights Watch urged the group to consider “whether a successful Formula One event could be held in an environment characterized by large-scale arbitrary arrests, prolonged incommunicado detentions, credible allegations of torture, and mass dismissals of workers.”
To be fair, the situation in Bahrain is more stable than in Syria, which is lurching toward civil war, or Libya, which is already there. The arrest of 1,000 demonstrators and the use of Saudi and other foreign troops (Saudi Arabia is deeply afraid of the demonstration effect of a monarch being toppled and also fears Bahrain's Shiite majority calling the shots there) has restored order.
Since the protests, hundreds of Shiites have been fired from government and private jobs, in an apparent warning to the community not to dare raise up their voices again. That's all helped bring the situation to a point where F1 thinks its time to return to business as usual.
To be fair to Mr. Ecclestone, he's not alone. President Obama hosted Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa at the White House yesterday, in which the younger Khalifa promised a "continuance of Bahrain’s process of meaningful reform."