North Africa, West Asia

Sports diplomacy: Bahrain’s martial arts venture distracts from human rights abuses

While the use of successful sporting events is a persuasive approach to international relations, it is limited in its ability to disguise Bahrain's true nature.

Karim Zidan
23 September 2016

Hasan Jamali/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Hasan Jamali/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

On Friday, September 23, the inaugural combat sports event entitled Brave Combat Federation (BCF) is taking place in Khalifa Sports City in Isa Town, Bahrain. The event, which features a headlining bout between Iraq’s Rami Aziz and Jordan’s Abdulkareem Selwady, represents the small Island kingdom’s attempt to become a significant player in the world of mixed martial arts. However, it also represents an attempt at sports diplomacy to distract international stakeholders from ongoing human rights abuses in Bahrain.

Brave Combat Federation was founded by Sheikh Khaled Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the fifth son of Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa. Prince Khaled began his career as a military man with the rank of first lieutenant. He then focused his attention on local sports, where he is now the first deputy chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and the founder of KHK MMA, a mixed martial arts gym that covers the costs of its fighters’ training fees and medical bills.

Over the past few months, Prince Khaled has been seen supporting his team, providing ice buckets for his teammates, and even competing in an amateur bout himself. However, despite his seemingly positive vision for the sport, questions have been raised about Bahrain’s shocking human rights violations and how the nation’s politics intersects with their growing interest in sports. Evidently, Bahrain has continued to use the cultural effects of sports for domestic policy and international relations. It has also arguably used sports as a tool to distract from the last five years of tension and turmoil.

Allegations of torture & royal immunity

Sheikh Khaled’s full brother, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, is also heavily immersed in sports. He is the president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, the Bahrain Royal Equestrian and Endurance Federation and the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports. He also happens to be a fan of endurance racing and won a silver medal at the Asian Games in Doha before he led the Bahrain National Endurance team to an eighth place finish in the 2007 European Open. Sheikh Nasser’s most recent venture was launching the Bahrain Cycling Team. Yet despite his attempt to increase Bahrain’s state prestige through success in sports, various allegations against Prince Nasser have arisen following the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

Sheikh Nasser, Commander of Bahrain's Royal Guard, was accused of torture and various other human rights abuses during the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. One unnamed Bahraini citizen who claimed to be tortured by the Prince himself fled to the United Kingdom and received refugee status. The torture victim currently seeks the Prince’s arrest upon his next visit to Britain. Despite the allegations, Sheikh Nasser attended the London 2012 Olympic Games and was allowed to return home with little trouble. By 2014, however, the High Court of London declared Sheikh Nasser no longer immune from prosecution.

While Sheikh Nasser was able to disappear from the public eye following the Olympics, the announcement of the Bahrain Cycling Team, which was given a budget of between £11.5m and £13.7m, rekindled past grievances and rehashed his unsavory past. The Bahrain Institute for Human Rights and Democracy (Bird) claimed that this was merely an attempt for the Prince to “whitewash” his past.

Brian Cookson, president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), also reminded readers about how Sheikh Nasser abused his position as the president of several sports institutions to quash athletes who attempted to participate in the popular uprising.

“Prince Nasser was at the head of systemic punitive measures against athletes. In all, some 120 athletes and club personnel were suspended across the sports of football, basketball, handball, volleyball, bodybuilding and snooker, including 27 members of national sports teams. At least 22 were arbitrarily arrested between April and June 2011, with some alleging that they were tortured.” (h/t Cycling Tips)

During the uprising, Nasser appeared on State TV and declared that “whoever calls for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head … whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician, whatever he is, he will be held accountable at this time. Today is the judgment day.”

While Nasser’s participation in sports will likely continue, his trajectory is a reminder of how governments control sports and manipulate athletes for political gain and socialization.

While Nasser’s participation in sports will likely continue, his trajectory is a reminder of how governments control sports and manipulate athletes for political gain and sociali influence. His influence over sports helped limit the impact of local athletes on the 2011 uprising. His younger brother, Sheikh Khaled, will now use sports to distract the international scene from Bahrain’s ongoing struggles.

Oppression, suppression and censorship

Ever since Bahrain’s monarchy was able to supress the 2011 uprising, they have faced an ongoing battle with critics of the regime. Their response to the criticism has isolated them from the international community and left them with little hope of securing western-type legitimacy.

According to Human Rights Watch, Bahrain remains “highly problematic” because of their willingness to imprison peaceful demonstrators and prosecute the opposition. Activists and protestors suffer from “disproportionate force” and are prosecuted on ridiculous charges such as “inciting demonstrations” or “insulting the king.” The Bahraini government has also taken to revoking citizenship from offenders and has used that tactic as a threat against those who oppose their rule.

208 Bahrainis had their passports revoked in 2015 alone.

However, it was the treatment of activist Nabeel Rajab that garnered the most international attention. The Bahraini human rights activist was most recently arrested on June 13, 2016 on the charge of “spreading false news” on his twitter account. He was hospitalized after spending over two weeks in solitary confinement.

By that time, Rajab had already been thrown in and released from prison on numerous occasions, including a two-year sentence between 2012-14 over similar charges. The Bahraini government continues to periodically arrest Rajab, detaining him without bail, and releasing him before levying new charges against him such as “inciting hatred.” Rajab remains in prison at the present day, and could face up to fifteen years for free expression. The Bahraini government continues to postpone his trial.

The plethora of ongoing human rights abuses in Bahrain does not stop there. The Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society Liberties and Human Rights Department (LHRD) released a 149-page report several months ago that detailed the regime’s abuses in 2015 alone. The LHRD noted 6,403 protests, 2,035 of which were squashed by police using teargas and shotguns. It also observed 1765 arrests, including 120 children, in 2015 due to the political crisis.

Though Bahrain clamped down on freedom of expression several years ago when it imposed a ban on demonstrations and created its arbitrary anti-terrorism laws (conveniently without properly defining terrorism), it continues to lash out at the opposition through the use of torture and ill-treatment. According to the LHRD report, Bahrain continues to use sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, sexual abuse, electrocution, and forced disappearances amongst other tactics to spread fear.

Yet despite Bahrain’s damaged reputation and polarized position on the international scene, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall will make an official visit to the Middle Eastern nation. This surprising endorsement gives the impression that Bahrain’s abuses are of little concern to the British monarchy. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that Bahrain’s royalty continues to increase their visibility through sports.

Sports diplomacy

Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Much like any authoritarian regime, sports in Bahrain are not just used for entertainment purposes, but for political gain and as a mechanism to distort reality and present a fabricated image of peace and prosperity on the international scene. Bahrain has been at the forefront of this sports diplomacy tactic for several years. This includes their efforts with the Formula-1 race, the Olympic Games, and, most recently, the Bahrain Cycling Team.

Sports in Bahrain are not just used for entertainment purposes, but for political gain and as a mechanism to distort reality and present a fabricated image of peace and prosperity on the international scene.

When Bahrain first hosted the Formula-1 event, it was in an attempt to transform its image from that of a relatively unknown island nation to a destination location for tourists and sports enthusiasts. It helped boost their economy and was later used to distract citizens from the popular uprising in 2011-12. Bahrain also went out of its way to offer passports to athletes from Jamaica and other locations in an attempt to boost their roster for the Olympic Games. Their interest in the acquisition of medals goes hand-in-hand with their need for state prestige.

The Bahrain government has also used sports as a tool to hinder their population and quench protests. Sports events and teams were suspended during the 2011 uprising and were seen as a threat to the monarchy because it allowed groups to gather together and discuss ongoing concerns. Instead, athletes were frequently exhorted to becme propaganda tools to defend the monarchy and their existence.

Sheikh Khaled bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s vision of an international MMA promotion based out of Bahrain debuted on his twenty-seventh birthday and garnered attention from the western world. However, it also offered a distraction from the ongoing tension and human rights abuses visible in the seemingly fragmented Kingdom of Bahrain. Successful sporting events can only enhance international relations, when the need to disguise their true nature is limited.

Therefore, when Bahrain hosts its next mixed martial arts event or Formula 1 race, remember its knack for oppression and the great lengths it has gone to, to protect the interests of the regime.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData