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Bahrain opposition activist detained for criticising McLaren ownership

Ebrahim Sharif was arrested by Bahraini authorities over social media posts critical of Bahrain’s decision to take full ownership of the British car company
A McLaren car is seen against the backdrop of the Bahrain Grand Prix, in March 2024 (AFP)

A leading opposition activist has been arrested and detained in Bahrain for criticising on social media the island kingdom’s ownership of the sportscar brand, McLaren.

Ebrahim Sharif was arrested by Bahraini authorities on Monday morning over social media posts critical of Bahrain’s decision to take full ownership of the McLaren Group, which is involved in Formula One, other motorsports and the manufacture of luxury super-cars. 

The former secretary general of the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), Bahrain’s largest leftist political party, Sharif was arrested and detained for three social media posts he wrote in the wake of the McLaren ownership news. 

Last Friday, Mumtalakat, Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund, which was already McLaren’s biggest shareholder, having first invested in 2007, took over full ownership of the troubled British company, which has been experiencing heavy financial losses.

Abdulla bin Khalifa al-Khalifa, CEO of Mumtalakat and a member of Bahrain’s ruling royal family, welcomed the deal, heralding “the next phase of the company’s trajectory of growing its leadership position in the luxury super car and motorsports industries”.

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Sharif was interviewed by police on Monday following a summons and subsequently referred to Bahrain’s public prosecution, which ordered that he be kept in detention for seven days pending an investigation over “social media posts that allegedly incite hatred against the regime”, according to Sharif’s lawyer and family.

If officially charged, the opposition activist could be imprisoned under Article 165 of the Bahrain Penal Code, which states that “A prison sentence shall be passed against any person who expressly incites others to develop hatred or hostility towards the system of government.”

Farida Ghulam, Sharif’s wife, confirmed his arrest and the reasons for his detention in a social media post. 

Middle East Eye asked McLaren if it condoned the arrest and detention of an activist for criticising its ownership. The company has not yet responded.

Quoting Marx

In the first of his contentious social media posts, on 23 March Sharif quoted Karl Marx’s line about history repeating itself first as tragedy, and then as farce. 

He referenced Bahrain’s prior purchase of Gulf Air, before writing: “With McLaren, we have moved from tragedy to farce. We have completed another cycle of owning failed companies with bottomless losses.”

McLaren recorded a pre-tax loss of $349m in the first nine months of 2023. 

The next day, Sharif contrasted Bahrain’s housing projects budget for 2023 (approximately $239m, according to official documentation displayed in the tweet) with the $564m put into McLaren by the sovereign wealth fund.

In a follow-up post, Sharif wrote that “Denial is an official policy, and the narrative of ‘a happy people’ is promoted by superficial media outlets.

"Do we believe what officials repeat and find resonance in complicit media, or do we believe what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our feelings sense about citizens living in miserable poverty, chronic unemployment, marginalisation, class disparities, and housing waiting lists that extend until the end of their days?

What the state spent on McLaren Racing last year is multiples of what it spent on housing projects. Do people die... in their overcrowded homes because you prioritise your hobbies and games over the interests of the poor?”

It was after this last post that Sharif was summoned for an interview by Bahraini police.

Commenting on the charges, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), said: “These accusations are absurd. No one should be arrested for freely expressing their views or questioning how the government is spending public funds. McLaren’s leadership must speak out on his arrest or else their brand will be stained by Bahrain’s abuses.”

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In 2004, Bahrain hosted its inaugural Grand Prix – the first one to take place in the Middle East.

While the 20th anniversary of this event was celebrated at the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix earlier this month, activists told MEE it marked "20 years of sportswashing"

The deal to take F1 to Bahrain was struck by the motorsport’s then-supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, and the island kingdom’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. 

Over the 20 years it has hosted the Grand Prix, Bahrain has looked to control this publicity, with political protests broken up so as not to disturb the spectacle around the motorsport, and activists harassed, detained and jailed for speaking out.

“The Grand Prix helps them, it helps them do this,” Moosa Satrawi, a Bahraini activist who told MEE he had been detained, abused and tortured for protesting unemployment in the island kingdom, said of Bahrain’s clampdown on human rights.  

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