Anthony Hilton: Bahrain F1 sponsors on a crash course

During the early stages of the Arab Spring a little over a year ago, Vodafone attracted a huge amount of negative publicity for appearing to co-operate with the old Egyptian regime of President Mubarak and against street protesters in the weeks before he was forced out.

Anthony Hilton: Bahrain F1 sponsors on a crash course
Anthony Hilton: Bahrain F1 sponsors on a crash course

The company defended itself then by saying that it had to comply with the legal request from the government to shut down its networks because of legally binding agreements with the regime. Second, it could not put its employees in an unsafe position where they would appear publicly to defy the forces still running the country.

The company got the benefit of the doubt - just - but with the caveat that the same excuse would not wash twice. It would need a more convincing story to keep public sympathy were it to find itself once again apparently siding with repressive Middle East regimes.

Given this history, one would have thought the mobile company, and the other major international sponsors of Formula 1 such as Santander or Accenture, would have been much more concerned than they appear to have been about the damage to their image that could well come from being associated with this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix. If the race does go ahead as promised by F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, then it may well take place against a backdrop of civil unrest.

So at best, if things stay quiet the sponsors will be seen as lending support to a repressive regime; at worst if there is violence the sponsors will be seen as personifying the worst aspects of global corporate culture. No doubt there will be much unfavourable comment on the money that flows into the sport from the Middle East - the Bahrain sovereign wealth fund owning 40 per cent of McLaren, for example.

To most people in the PR business that would appear to be an unappetising choice between distaste and disaster, so why have they not done more to avoid it?

Something appears to have gone badly wrong in these big companies if the comms professionals have found it impossible to get that message heard in their own boardrooms.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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