No winner crowned in the real contest of Bahrain's Grand Prix
By Andrew Hammond, Reuters
April 24, 2012, 12:00 pm TWN
DUBAI -- Bull's Sebastian Vettel may have won the Bahrain Grand Prix, but there was no winner in the main event: a public relations battle between the ruling Al Khalifa family and protesters in the streets over competing visions of Bahrain.
Masked youths with petrol bombs faced off nightly against riot police in armored vehicles, armed with batons, tear gas, sound bombs and guns firing birdshot. At least one protester was found dead on a rooftop after a clash.
Demonstrators denounced the Grand Prix as a lavish stunt by a government that crushed Arab Spring protests last year and remains out of touch with popular demand for change.
The government accused activists of exaggerating the unrest and sabotaging the country's image.
"In terms of the public relations battle it's been a loss for government. But no one won overall — I think it has added to the existing divisions," said Jane Kinninmont, an analyst at London's Chatham House think tank.
"The opposition are more angry about deaths and beatings, while the pro-government camp is upset that the protesters hold up economic development and shocked at the media coverage."
The race was cancelled last year after Arab Spring protests, mainly by the Shiite Muslim majority whose members feel marginalized by a minority Sunni elite.
The government put last year's protests down by force, swept demonstrators off the streets and bulldozed the highway roundabout where they were camping. Thirty-five people, including members of the security forces, died in the crackdown.
According to an independent commission set up by the government, many of those arrested were tortured in custody.
When Washington, which has its regional naval headquarters in Bahrain, threatened to cancel an arms deal, the kingdom took its reputation seriously.
The race was marketed in Bahrain with the slogans "uniF1ed" and "one nation, one celebration."
"I would like to wish all the Formula One teams today the best of luck," King Hamad said in a message on Sunday before the race, "And thank you for showing your faith in our country by coming here."
Bahrain says it is implementing the independent commission's recommendations for democratic reforms and life is returning to normal. But the uprising never fully went away and clashes between protesters and police have increased in recent months.
The demonstrators, largely ignored by the Gulf-dominated pan-Arab media, saw the Grand Prix as a chance to take their grievances to the world stage and the government seems to have scored an own goal by barring some non-sports journalists.
"They basically said 'you're only welcome if you only cover Formula One.' But some went to find what they were trying to hide," said Alaa Shehabi, an opposition activist. "The whole media strategy of the last year has backfired. It was focused on hiring PR companies to push their message to journalists."
The opposition parties, which include secular and Islamist Shiites as well as some Sunnis, want democratic reforms that would empower parliament to form governments and end tight Al Khalifa family control of public life.