Formula 1 takes back Bahrain employees

Organizers hope to score human rights points by rehiring staff fired for joining protests.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN/THE MEDIA LINE
January 12, 2012 20:02
Formula One race car

Formula One car 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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In a move aimed at appeasing critics calling for a boycott of Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix, the organizers of the race circuit have announced they are reinstating employees who had been dismissed for supporting the anti-government protests.

Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al-Khalifa, chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit, said they were giving the fired workers their jobs back as part of “national reconciliation” efforts.

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Management of the race circuit has already been in touch with the fired staff and a press statement said they hoped to see them returning “as soon as possible.” The statement did not specify how many employees had been dismissed or reinstated.

“The Bahrain International Circuit, and in particular the Formula 1 Grand Prix, is of huge significance to our country, acting as a strong unifier, given the support it receives from all sections of Bahrain society,” Al-Khalifa said in a statement to The Media Line.  “I now look forward to working with all BIC colleagues to ensure that we continue to provide world class track events, which every citizen of Bahrain can be proud to support.”

The statement came days after The Media Line reported calls of pressure by rights activists in Bahrain to boycott the high-profile Formula One race in protest over the continued deterioration of human rights in the Gulf kingdom.

Bahrain had been dropped from the 2011 calendar following protests from Formula One teams and drivers in response to widespread civil unrest last February and March.  But by September Bahrain was able to win back a spot on this year’s racing schedule, a boost for the country’s key tourism industry and a vote of confidence in the government. The Formula One Grand Prix is slated to take place on April 22

“That will be disappointing to all those people who were killed and injured in the uprising that was calling for democracy and human rights that is why I urge all the teams, the drivers, the mechanics, those people who are working close with Formula One to boycott it,” Nabeel Rajab, president for Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told The Media Line.



Rajab said many Bahrainis working for Formula One in the past had been detained and tortured and he hoped their international colleagues would show solidarity with them by refusing to come to Bahrain.

“This is the wrong message to send to my government. My government committed a lot of crimes against humanity. And coming  to Bahrain at this point of time when you have hundreds of political prisoners, you have people whose have been tortured and whose houses have been raided and mosques have been demolished and at the same you have Formula One coming to Bahrain, that is the wrong message, a negative message. Bahraini people will be upset by it. And I hope those teams will boycott it,” Rajab said.

Reached by The Media Line, a spokesman for the Bahrain International Circuit, which hosts the high-profile race, countered that the race was an important contributor of the country’s economy.

“The Bahrain Grand Prix forms a fundamental part of the local economy. It is supported by an overwhelming majority of people from all sections of society in Bahrain and represents a symbol of national unity,” the spokesman told The Media Line. “We will now work tirelessly to ensure that the race is a great success.”

He acknowledged that an independent report commissioned by the King of Bahrain that uncovered human rights violations and made recommendations to correct them was a “milestone” for the kingdom.

Bahrain reportedly paid around $39.2 million in hosting fees for last year’s scrapped three-day race. Bahrain International Circuit said that the last time the race was held, in 2010, it had generated over $295 million and created over 400 jobs. It was also one of the most popular auto races on the F1 calendar drawing over 100,000 spectators and recording the second highest worldwide television audience of all races for that year.

No comment was immediately available from Formula One. But in November, Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s chief executive officer, told British media that the race would take place as scheduled unless “something terrible happens to stop us.”

When the premier Formula One race was first hosted by Bahrain in 2004, it put the Middle East firmly on the map of auto racing. Often regarded as the world’s most widely followed motor sport, more than half a billion people tuned into Formula One races last year.

Bahrain has been the only Gulf country to be swept up in the Arab Spring turmoil. It is a tiny, oil-poor country, but is of key concern to its neighbors and to the U.S., which bases the Navy’s Fifth Fleet there. It is located in the waters between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Its mixed population of Sunnis and Shiites makes it a flashpoint in the sectarian cold war between the two Muslim sects.

Thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March last year demanding curbs on the power of the ruling Al-Khalifa family and an end to perceived discrimination. King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa imposed martial law and brought Saudi and the United Arab Emirates forces into the country to crack down on demonstrators.

But the severity of the crackdown – which left about 60 dead and led to the arrest of some 1,400 people, many of them still in prison – has left many Bahrainis feeling alienated and disillusioned. Small-scale clashes between police and mostly Shiite demonstrators have persisted on an almost daily basis.

King Hamad has recently agreed to implement some gestures of political reform following an independent commission which found police used excessive force against anti-government protesters.

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