No winners at Bahrain Grand Prix

Racing event provided Shiite Arabs chance to cast light on tiny country's problems.

bahrain protesters_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
bahrain protesters_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
International fans of Formula One racing were no doubt as eager as ever for last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, one of the leading international sporting events in the Middle East.
Many local Bahrainis, however, saw the race quite differently.
With its global media coverage and elaborate corporate sponsorship events, the Grand Prix was also an opportunity to let the world know about the ongoing protests against the government of Bahrain.  Activists had sought to shut down the race with “Three Days of Rage," which involved coordinated demonstrations across the small country.
Ultimately, the Bahrain Grand Prix was run without serious disruption.
Government security forces were largely effective at keeping demonstrators away from key race sites, including the Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir, located just 25 miles away from the capital, Manama.  Sebastian Vettal, a former world champion who drives for the Red Bull team, emerged as the eventual winner.
However, attendance at the high-profile event was noticeably down. In the grandstands, there were many empty seats, as a large number of tickets went unused.
Last year’s Grand Prix was canceled because the Arab Spring demonstrations had spread to Bahrain, and a violent government crackdown soon followed.  Despite attempts by Bahraini officials to use this year’s Grand Prix as a symbol to unify its population, clashes between protesters and police continued throughout the weekend.
Critics complained that the race organizers should have canceled the three-day event again this year, since holding an event like the Grand Prix arguably legitimizes the Bahrain government.  Activists quickly redoubled their efforts after a prominent activist, Salah Abbas Habib, was reportedly killed by police on Friday.
Bahrain’s King King Hamad ibn Isa al Khalifa still faces large amounts of dissent.  The Sunni royal family rule over a country that is 70 percent Shiite.  In the year since the protests erupted in Manama, the government has undertaken some reforms, although they have been fairly limited in scope and impact.  On the day of the Grand Prix, Khalifa issued a statement declaring  that he remained committed to reform, but that significant reforms have already been implemented by the government.
Bahrain, a key ally of the US, Great Britain and the West, has an insular and highly conservative approach to government.  In the past, the Bahraini government prominently promoted its desire to uphold the rule of law and operate on the basis of democratic norms.  Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa has lead efforts to formulate a national concord with the protesters in order to address some of their concerns.  So far, progress has been tenuous and inconsistent.
Compared to other Gulf states, Bahrain has a reputation for moderation and modernity.  Women have equal rights with men.  Lacking oil, Bahrain has instead focused on high-tech industries and banking to deliver prosperity.  As a result, Bahrainis are among the most educated in the region.
A crtical part of Bahrain’s recent success stems from the widespread belief that it is a stable place to transact business.  The pictures of masked protesters throwing fire bombs printed in newspapers last weekend clearly undermines that image.
Of course, Bahrain is not Syria. Khalifa is not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  To conflate the two countries, even with the most sincere of motivations, is to potentially worsen a situation rather than work to improve it.
Bahrain sits at an uncomfortable juncture in the history of the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia each have their own agendas when it comes to the future of this tiny country: population 700,000.  On the one hand, Iran has actively supported Bahraini exiles who are putting pressure on the royal family and government.  On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is keen to support the Sunni Arab rulers of Bahrain, in order to prevent another Shiite-led country from appearing in the region. 
Notably, 80 percent of Saudi oil reserves are in its own Shiite-dominated eastern province.
The sectarian battle between Shiites and Sunnis continues to be a source of division and conflict in the Muslim world even after all of these centuries.
Fortunately, the Arab Spring protests have maintained a relevance and momentum that their erstwhile cousin, the Occupy movement, has lacked.  Despite the frequent efforts by Occupiers to link their grandstanding and speech making to the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, the comparison ultimately failed.
In Bahrain, a large segment of a society is struggling to participate in a political and economic system that excludes them.  Unfortunately, after 14 months the eye of the global media has turned away from the tiny island in favor of other newsworthy events.
When both the ongoing blood-letting in Syria and the “secret war” in Yemen have problems maintaining the interest of the media, what hope can these protesters in Bahrain have to attract attention and support?
The Bahrainis demonstrating against the Grand Prix were unable to achieve their stated aim last weekend .  However, they were able to remind the rest of the world that their demands remain unfulfilled.
Bahrain still has an opportunity to become a success story for reformers.  Hopefully, the government and royal family will work with the demonstrators to deliver on that great potential.
Then we will see the Grand Prix’s true winners.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.