Teargas on democracy protesters? Bahrain Grand Prix sponsors say 'no problem'

It appears the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix scheduled for this weekend will go on, despite the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters there. Advertisers don't appear worried about any backlash.

Hasan Jamali/AP
Tear gas fills the air Friday, April 20, near a damaged billboard for the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix (r.) as riot police prevent Bahraini antigovernment protesters from marching toward the hub of last spring's pro-democracy uprising at the end of a mass rally just outside Manama, Bahrain.

Vodafone. Allianz. Reebok. Microsoft. Tag-Heur. All among the leaders in their respective fields. And these and dozens of other companies have, in effect, put their seal of approval on the actions of the monarchy in Bahrain.

The Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place this weekend amid tens of thousands of protesters in Manama braving tear gas and birdshot as they demand political change in the tiny monarchy. Ferrari, Mercedes, and the other glamour teams are practicing today, will run in the qualifying round tomorrow, and will zoom off in the official race scheduled for Sunday, with an expected global TV audience of at least 100 million.

Some of the globe's best-known brands will have their logos spread across the barriers, the promotional literature, the broadcasts, and the cars themselves. That they're not concerned this amounts to a vote of confidence in a monarchy that has been accused of jailing and torturing peaceful demonstrators, with the aid of its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, is an indication that in the realm of international public opinion, the ruling Khalifa family is winning.

Take this from Allianz, one of the largest insurers in the world, on its involvement with the sport: "The partnership between Allianz and Formula One is a trusted alliance designed to highlight the importance of risk management and road safety as well as build the Allianz brand globally."

Brand building must go on.

Major corporations spend a lot of money worrying about their brands, and their research has told them that there's more money to be made than lost by carrying on with this weekend's event. Consumers either aren't aware of what's been going on in Bahrain, or don't care.

The Business and Human Rights Information Center says it contacted all of the sponsors of F1 teams, the organization, and the race itself. Only about half issued responses. The ones that did were generally bland and non-specific. Microsoft was fairly typical, writing. "We recognize the important responsibilities we have to respect human rights and work every day to meet our responsibilities. We invite dialogue with stakeholders and look forward to engaging in thoughtful discussions.”

Vodafone responded in a similar vein: "We are monitoring developments very closely and are aware of international concerns. However, the decision whether or not to proceed with the event is a matter for the teams and Formula 1."

Reebok, which has a sponsorship agreement with the Sahara Force India team, was a little more direct, writing "we will reach out to this team to understand their position on participation... given the ongoing civil unrest and evidence of human rights violations."

Bernie Ecclestone, whose financial control of F1 has made him a billionaire, struck a defiant tone with reporters today when they asked about the departure of two members of the Sahara Force India team, who flew home after seeing a burning car in Manama.

"You guys want a story and it's a good story and if there isn't a story you make it up like usual, Nothing changes," Mr. Ecclestone said. "The political thing is going in so many countries. These things happen. We are not here to get involved in politics. There are many more countries higher up the priority list that you should be writing about. Go to Syria and write about those things because it is more important there."

Ecclestone can say as much as he likes that F1 isn't involved in politics, but it doesn't make it so.

The claim that "politics and sport should never mix" is often trotted out, as if sport is some pure sacrament untainted by the concerns of the profane work-a-day world. This is absurd. Major global sporting organizations like F1, FIFA, or the International Olympic Committee have confronted scandal after scandal through the decades, usually centered around the nexus of money, power and political influence they represent.

The decision to bring the F1 circus to town, or to award the World Cup to a host nation, is a political one as much as a business one. These events are enormous shop windows for tourism, lend prestige to the governments that host them, and amount to approval of the way they run their affairs. 

What is the "political thing" in Bahrain at the moment? Human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja remains in jail and on hunger strike. Human Rights Watch says hundreds of others remain in jail for their political activism. At the end of March, the group wrote, "it seems that no high-ranking officials have been investigated for their roles in rampant torture or unlawful killing."

To be sure, the regime has its supporters. Among the most prominent in the US is Ed Husain, a fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Husain appears to view Bahrain's protesters as largely in league with Iran (Bahrain is a Sunni monarchy, but the majority of its citizens are Shiite), judging by a recent series of tweets from him. "If Bahrain is good enough for the US Fifth Fleet, it's good enough for F1... Back away Iran's molotov hurlers," he wrote today.

The US, which has close military ties with Manama and runs the Fifth Fleet out of the kingdom, has indeed been muted in its criticism of the country.

Though motor sport journalists have poured into the country, a number of political reporters seeking to cover the protests there this weekend have been denied visas.

The race could still be called off if security deteriorates. It was security concerns, amid the crackdown on protesters, that led to the cancellation of the race last year, and if today's protests devolve into something uglier, it's possible that security could be the reason again.

But for now, it's full steam ahead. And F1 and its sponsors have sent the message that they don't have a problem with how the government is treating its own people.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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