Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Friday, 20 April 2012

In a rich man's world.

BAHRAIN is a funny place.

Smack bang next to the intolerant, inhumane Saudi Arabia it is also home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, staffed with men and women who count the right to vote, drive, and fornicate as basic freedoms.

It is ruled by an immigrant royal family much like ours, they're about 80 years behind us in letting women vote and at least twice as far back in terms of the general human right not to get shot in the street if you want to protest.

Britain has a long history of tinkering with this island, because it's full of oils and pearls and has a good strategic position in the middle of the Arabian Gulf. As a result I had to visit it a few years ago to cover a joint naval exercise with the US.

Lots of sailors, lots of 'BRACE! BRACE!' and when the war games were over we went ashore for a night out in the capital Manama.

As did most of Saudi Arabia. Well, the male, wealthy members of it. They all drive over the 16-mile causeway between the two countries at the weekend to enjoy all the things that are banned at home.

There are a couple of pubs but because you're not technically allowed to buy alcohol you had to buy 'tokens' to enter them, then trade the tokens for drink. I've still got one, it was good for one pint of really bad beer.


The belly-dancing bars were harder to find, based on the first floor of anonymous office buildings that you had to know how to find. We went in a couple, and instead of the exotic Arabian beauties you might expect they were staffed - as such places often are, in my experience - by bored-looking Latvian women.

For $10 the bored Latvian would put a plastic garland of flowers around a Saudi's neck, wave her arms and sway from side to side for a couple of minutes, flash a bit of ankle and then take the garland back. As belly-dancing went it was pretty lame.

I was the only female in a group of sailors and journalists, something I didn't notice until we left the bars to wander through the souk and buy presents to take home, where we haggled happily with the traders trying to offload their cheap tat.

I fell to the back of the group at which point the sellers stopped trying to flog me things and just stared at me, my hair and my clothes. Neither were much to write home about, but they didn't look at me because I was unusual. They looked at me because I was a thing.

They didn't make eye contact, they didn't stare in a sexual way, they just regarded me as an object they didn't much like. Suddenly there was threat in the air, the men seemed to be closing in, and my instincts told me to catch up with the men in my group sharpish.

I asked one of them quietly to watch my back, and he told me I was being silly. To his credit he made sure I didn't get left on my own again, and because he was a journo he made the effort to look at the men who were looking at me.

Ten minutes later he came up to me. "You're right," he said. "They're looking at you in the strangest way. I would never have noticed if you hadn't pointed it out, but it's not like men look at women back home."

None of which has much to do with the Grand Prix, which is being run there on Sunday amid great controversy. But it just goes to show how the exchange of money makes people look the other way, or put on a mask of friendliness in order to get your cash.

The authorities overlooked the pubs, because they needed the foreigners who went there. The Latvian girls pretended they liked the Saudis, the Saudis pretended they were local, and the market traders were happy to sell me tat when I had a man by my side.

If any of those charades had stopped, there would have been trouble. The mask would drop. And it's the things you don't usually hear about that mean the most.

Formula 1 - run by a British man whose fortune is largely based offshore to minimise his tax bill - has been paid £25m by the Bahraini rulers to have a race in their country. They in turn stand to make £200m in tourism. Ahead of the event around 1,600 democracy protesters have been arrested, another 1,000 have disappeared entirely, and race teams have been caught up in tear gas and stun grenade attacks by the police.

Four months ago a man who resigned from the Met Police for supposedly doing nothing wrong took a job improving the morality of the Bahraini police. Presumably, former assistant commissioner John Yates is spending most of his time passing around Rebekah Brooks' phone number and telling officers not to bother investigating things that are blindingly obvious. Yesterday he admitted F1 protesters might be fired on with live ammunition.

Yates has a taxpayer-paid pension of £123,000 a year, and is getting an even bigger bung from Bahrain. Our Queen is such good friends with their king he was invited to Wills and Kate's wedding and is coming over for a jubilee tea in the Buckingham Palace garden. And the family which runs Bahrain, and takes most of its oil wealth, owns half of the McLaren team.

That's right. Nasty old woman-hating, gay-bashing and democracy-suppressing despots own half of handsome, smiley Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. They don't mention that at the photocalls, do they?

I'm not a big fan of motor-racing myself, mainly because watching quite safe cars rush around a length of tarmac in a circle is of limited interest.

But even if I was an avid fan I wouldn't watch the race this Sunday. I don't want to turn a blind eye and pretend it's all about sport and engineering and ignore the disgusting things that are going on around it.

Money might make the world go around, but I find the sight of people crushed under its wheels rather sickening.

Yeah, hooray for you two.