Saturday, April 21, 2012
Bernie, Take Charge & Drop Bahrain
Prior to last year, Bahrain appeared to be a new breed of Gulf state - progressive, prosperous and interested in being friends with the West. Early last year pro-democracy protests took hold in several Arab countries and the seeds of change drifted over to the island of Bahrain. The West's perception of Bahrain was altered. We learned that a large chunk of the populous, Sunni Muslims, felt that the governing royal family discriminated against them. Peaceful demonstrations were repeatedly cleared with an increasing brutal hand. Bahrain had been due to host the opening race of the 2011 Formula One calendar. Bernie Ecclestone cancelled the event. An independent commission estimated that over fifty civilians were killed and hundreds were imprisoned. The King of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, promised sweeping change and reparation.
Fast forward twelve months and the King's main priority is Formula One. He has done all the sweeping change stuff now and is truly sorry for last year. Things are OK now and there is no reason at all why Bahrain should not host Formula One again. In fact, it would be really rather useful, Bernie, if you could see to it as a matter of considerable urgency. Bahrainis are known for their love of motor sport, but surely this determination to host a weekend of racing is a little odd?
The Bahraini government see Formula One has a giant international press conference run on their own terms. The glamour; the sexiness; the bling; the drivers. Formula One projects an image of cool, Western prosperity. The King wants a piece of that. Let's face it, he needs it. He wants to tell the world that things are OK. Back to how they were before it went wrong. Business as usual.
And this is the problem. Back to normal is not good enough. Bahrainis are again demonstrating. Fire-bombs have been thrown at Formula One teams. Tensions are high. The populous is enraged at the government's attempt to use Formula One to airbrush out the events of the last twelve months. Bernie is adamant that engines will run this weekend. With the practice stage just a few hours away, it could be too late for Bernie to cancel. He will be considering his own image and that of Formula One - cancelling now might appear to be giving in to popular pressure. There is only one king of Formula One and that is Bernie. It will be a business decision based on brand perception and the level of incurred loss in revenue. Moral concerns will not really play a part. If Bernie does take charge and drop Bahrain, it will probably be for all the wrong reasons. The corollary, however, would be a big old slap in the face for the King of Bahrain. That's pretty much what his people want.