Issue of Sportswash has emerged again with two Formula 1 races to be held in Bahrain
UPDATE 26 November
Sport and politics have never been too far apart. During the Cold War, countries like East Germany and Russia spent enormous sums on their sports programmes in an attempt to demonstrate to the world how successful they were. Recently, we have seen countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain use their vast wealth to secure favourable media coverage. Earlier in the year, we featured the attempt to purchase Newcastle FC using Saudi money.
These countries are also able to pay large sums to public relations firms to massage their reputations. Before we rush to condemn sporting organisations, sportsmen and women too quickly however, we need to look at the tangled web of influence and connections between a variety of people and the Bahraini regime. One such is the retired Chief of Defence staff Baron, formerly General, Richards of Herstmonceux. Despite the unrest, crackdowns and multiple human rights violations in Bahrain, Baron Richards was able to advise them on a variety of areas using his company Palliser Associates and Equilibrium Global. There are various connections to the former prime minister David Cameron. Full details and further links can be found on a Daily Maverick piece.
The human rights situation in Bahrain is extremely poor. Women do not have equal rights; many people are declared stateless; prison conditions are extremely poor with limited medical treatment for those detained; the death penalty is used and there is no free expression to speak of. There is no independent media. Amnesty’s report on the country can be read on this link. Human Rights Watch’s summary says:
Bahrain’s human rights situation continues to be dire. Courts convict and imprison prominent human rights defenders and opposition leaders for their peaceful activism. Security forces ill-treat, threaten, and coerce alleged suspects into signing confessions. Authorities have resumed executions, many after unfair trials marred by torture allegations, and fail to hold officials accountable for torture. Courts have stripped the citizenship of hundreds, leaving many stateless, and deported dozens of dissidents, journalists, and lawyers as punishments for offenses that include peaceful criticism of the government. Authorities in 2017 shut down the only independent newspaper in the country as well as opposition parties. Members of dissolved opposition parties were banned from running in parliamentary elections in November 20. Human Rights Watch
A full analysis of the political situation in Bahrain is provided by Freedom House.
Western governments, including the UK, have been extremely keen to establish good relations with the state because of lucrative defence spending. We have also established a base there. It is seen as a ‘core market‘ for us. The Daily Mail has published an article, with multiple photos, showing the many meetings between the Queen, and other members of our Royal family, and the King of Bahrain. Lots of jollity on show.
Sport and Sports Wash is thus just one part of the picture. Bahrain is a wealthy and powerful regime well able via offers of money and contracts, to ‘buy’ political influence. But things may be beginning to stir. World Champion racing driver, Lewis Hamilton, has made statements highlighting human rights issues in countries seeking to sanitise their reputations. Recently, he said:
We realise we’ve got to not ignore human rights issues in counties that we go to, not just 20 years, 30 years from now, but now.
In another development is that 30 UK cross party members of parliament have written to the Chief Executive of Formula 1, Chase Carey, to express their disquiet at plans to hold the Grand Prix races in Bahrain.
[They expressed] concern that the Bahrain Grand Prix is exploited be the by the Bahrain government to ‘sports wash’ their human rights record
The role of Marcus Rashford is also noteworthy in this regard. It was his intervention which was key to changing the government’s position on free school meals. Maybe we are seeing the stirrings of conscience among some sports people that they do have a role to play in the political arena. With their vast followings and star status, they are in a prime position to speak to their public and highlight some of the terrible things that go on in countries like Bahrain.
Up till now, money, arms sales, and a cosy relationship with politicians, service people and the Royal family, has enabled these regimes to carry on the mistreatment of their subjects, with human rights organisations merely an irritant, a kind of background noise, who can safely be ignored. But sport has a mass following as the prime minister discovered to his discomfort earlier this month. If more sportsman like Hamilton and Rashford, begin to use their power to focus the minds of their fans onto what is going on in these despotic countries, maybe the political ground will shift.