Mark Steel: Every despot should have a Grand Prix


The most fun part of the news at the moment is these interviews with the government of Bahrain. Because they start: “You have stated that you're moving your country towards democracy. Is that true, Crown Prince Imperial Grand Emperor O Flawless Being of Gorgeous Holy Succulent Mightiness?”

Then they calmly explain how they're trying really hard to reform the country gradually, as if there's something holding things up that they can't help. Maybe they keep trying to set a date for an election, but the opposition leader says he can't make Wednesday as a wardrobe is being delivered, then the weekend's a nightmare as the builders are around so we have to accept these things take time.

Like most modern brutal governments, they've been coached on how to deal with the media, so they answer questions with the cheeriness of a minister brushing off disappointing inflation figures, and say, “Ha ha John, I'm very glad you asked me that, because if you look at the underlying trend of people rounded up and beaten mercilessly by riot police and then electrocuted, there's a distinct year-on-year drop which shows how much progress we've made.

"And may I say, you've made progress yourself, John. You're now my favourite interviewer, ha ha.”

If the Spanish Inquisition was around now they'd have the Pope interviewed on Channel 4 News, saying, “I have tremendous respect for Amnesty International, but their report on our methods is, on this occasion, highly flawed. I can assure you some of these so-called victims pulled out their own fingernails to discredit the excellent work being done by the church on human rights in recent years.

"But you're welcome to be my guest and enjoy our communion any time.”

They did well at this over the Grand Prix, informing us the event was nothing to do with politics, it was fun for the people. So presumably, whenever a secret reporter sneaks into a Bahraini slum and asks what they want for the future, the people say, “We have many hopes and aspirations. For example my wife, who like me, goes without food so we can feed our baby, wants Sebastian Vettel to win this year's championship, whereas I'm more a fan of Jenson Button and his aggressive overtaking on the bends.”

When Formula One head Bernie Ecclestone said at a press conference that the race was nothing to do with politics, he might have seemed more convincing if the person he was holding it with wasn't Sheik Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Bahrain Crown Prince. I know we shouldn't read too much into a name, but I'd take a guess and say he was a supporter of the monarchy.

But it's a shame they didn't think of this strategy in other Arab countries where there's been unrest. If they'd stuck a Grand Prix in Libya, the people would have been delighted and Gaddafi would still be in charge, gradually working towards democracy.

[This article first appeared in The Independent.]

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