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Moment that mattered: The Bahrain Grand Prix

Bahraini children run with a national flag past a wall painted with anti-F1 graffiti Saturday, April 21, 2012, in Barbar, Bahrain, west of the capital of Manama. Bahraini opposition groups claimed Saturday that a man was killed during clashes with security forces, threatening to sharply escalate the Gulf nation's unrest as officials struggle under the world's spotlight as hosts of the Formula One Grand Prix. Authorities opened an investigation in a bid to diffuse tensions. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

“Along with most political journalists, I was denied entry to Bahrain for the grand prix. Some journalists came in illegally and were deported. But because I visit the country regularly, I never sneak in. I was in Manama airport for eight hours, then I had to fly back to Dubai.

The Bahraini government had made it clear that it was vital for them to get this year’s grand prix off the ground even in the face of  international media condemnation. After 14 months of strong protest – and ten years of protest movements before that – they really needed to show that Bahrain was back on the international scene.

A year after the 2011 grand prix was cancelled, they wanted to be able to say, ‘We’ve got everything back to normal. We’ve gone through a process of hand-wringing, of bringing in an independent commission to look at security forces, and we are reforming.’ They tried to blend that narrative of reform with the return of the grand prix. No one really bought into it though, because the reforms are essentially limited and the protests continue.

Before the grand prix, Bahrain had fallen off the news agenda. The protests were mainly locked down in the Shia villages. There were abuses, but clearly not on the level of Syria. The story had lost its news appeal to editors. So that’s why the grand prix brouhaha was so important for the country. The protesters were glad that once again the world’s focus was on their attempted revolution. On the other side, the government showed that they could pull off the event and that they were still part of the F1 circuit.

Since the grand prix took place, there has been more talk of reform and some reforms are being implemented. But protests continue every weekend and they’re becoming more violent, with an increasing use of Molotov cocktails and IEDs. Bahrain is still the crucial political challenge facing the Gulf. It’s still a vital issue, but it has become an unsexy news item.

Bahrain is continuing down the path of sectarian polarisation and an increasing reliance on the police and the courts in order to maintain stability. It is hard to know whether they will stick to these policies in the long term. The government could continue down the route of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait and throw even more money at the Bahraini population. These countries made pledges to increase public sector employment and boost infrastructure, they raised benefits and public sector salaries. Saudi Arabia alone pledged $100 billion in domestic investment, which had a huge impact. Maybe that will help keep this thing down in the short term, but in the long term all they are doing is making their economies even more unbalanced by making their public sectors completely dominant. That’s one of the major worries, that these socio-economic handouts that have come along with the Arab Spring have actually put economic reform back in these countries by years.

Alternatively, Bahrain could follow the Oman/Morocco route, and start to grasp the nettle of reform, and then maybe stage some kind of reconciliation between the divided communities. Perhaps the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, could take a more central role in the country and engage in dialogue with the opposition. He is not in the driving seat, but he is perhaps the person most likely to be able to achieve some kind of compromise. He brought the grand prix to Bahrain, and even some of the opposition back the grand prix, because they want to boost the Crown Prince, who they see as more sympathetic to their cause. But everyone’s been trying to boost the Crown Prince for a year now, and it doesn’t seem to be helping to any great extent.

For the moment there is no significant progress in the country. But people do now realise that there is going to be an annual health check on the government’s actions. Ironically, for all the charities, pressure groups and governments pushing for reform,  it is Bernie Ecclestone’s grand prix that has brought some of the greatest accountability to Bahrain.”

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