If you are a Formula One Fan, you are well aware that Sebastian Vettel won last weekend’s Grand Prix in Manama, Bahrain. But other than Vettel, there were no winners in this small island country that has been in turmoil since last year. The event went off without a hitch, but Bahrain’s ruling family is deluded if they think the race will unite the people. The biggest loser, in fact, was human rights.
Last year’s Grand Prix was canceled as Bahrain was smack in the middle of the Arab Spring that rocked the Middle East. But despite the country’s political instability, the race proceeded as planned. For the majority of Bahrainis who despise the royal family’s stranglehold on the country, life has been one of constant worry. Police repeatedly harass civilians and tear gas is often shot into neighborhoods with no warning. The ruling al-Khalifa family refuses to negotiate with dissidents who see their nation as one that rife with corruption and unfairness, and has hired former police chiefs from the U.S. and United Kingdom in a move to keep their hold on power at any cost and by any strategy.
But despite the growing outcry against human rights violations, many companies associated with the event overlooked what is occurring in Bahrain. In fact, only 29 percent of companies responded to a human rights questionnaire sent by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center. Usually the response rate is closer to 75 percent.
The human rights advocacy group was overall dismayed over the lack of responses. Sponsors and partners including Dell, GE, Proctor & Gamble, Virgin, and Visa, in addition to several Formula One teams, simply ignored the survey. Other companies like DHL, Microsoft and Intel responded that they had commitments to sponsor the event or a team and were open to further questions or reiterated their human rights policy.
The event, at a superficial level, was a success. Large protests and extensive security greeted fans and Formula One Teams alike, although occasional violence erupted with one team and a pavilion for fans was a target for protestors. But journalists, including some from the Associated Press and even Al-Jazeera, were denied entry to cover the event. Reporters and camera crew allowed in the country were limited in where they could go, and also had to place bright orange stickers on their cameras to ensure that they did not dare to film anything other the race. And while western public relations firms are paid generous sums to paint a prettier picture of Bahrain, the truth is that the ruling family and their minions harassed everyone from those who express opinions on Twitter to security forces’ use of stun grenades against protesters.
For companies that were involved with the Bahrain Grand Prix, the message sent was that human rights do not matter when compared to a prestigious sporting event. The common excuse given that “sports and politics don’t mix” is a failed response given that the regime in Bahrain counted on the Grand Prix to show a whitewashed version of Bahrain to the world. At a time when human rights is becoming a focal point by which companies prove that they are embracing a more ethical and socially responsible agenda, the collaboration with a vengeful regime sends a terrible signal. Bahrainis deserve better. They deserve to be part of their government, not fearful of it.