Inside Story

Can Formula One unite Bahrain?

We ask if the race the country’s rulers called a “force for good” has been a human rights and public relations disaster.

It was meant as a signal to the world that Bahrain had returned to normal.

The ruling al-Khalifa family described the Formula One Grand Prix as a “force for good” that would unite the country.

But amid growing protests, the race appeared to be descending into a human rights and public relations disaster.

Many of the protesters have had economic grievances regarding unemployment, wages, housing … I don’t see how standing against the Formula One will actually benefit that.

– Fahad Al Binali, a media official for Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority

On Friday, activists began what they called “three days of rage” against Bahrain’s rulers.

Demonstrations intensified on Saturday after Salah Abbas Habeeb, a protest leader, was killed. It is believed he died in clashes with security forces. His body was found on a rooftop.

Bahrain’s Grand Prix has certainly drawn attention to the unrest that has gone on for more than a year.

Protests began on February 14 last year, when thousands gathered at the Pearl roundabout in the capital, Manama.

A month later, Saudi-led GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) troops were deployed to quell the unrest. The Pearl roundabout, the focus of demonstrations, was demolished.

A few years ago no one was protesting against the Formula One clearly. The people are looking only for the media to give more attention … they are covering the bloodshed and violence in other countries but why are they not covering the peaceful protests in Bahrain…?”

– Ali Al Aswad, a member of the al-Wefaq Party

In November, an independent commission of inquiry found evidence of human rights violations and King Hamad al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s ruler, accepted the findings and promised his people sweeping reforms.

But activists say the government has failed to deliver.

Meanwhile Western leaders have held off from criticising the Bahraini government’s decision to go ahead with the race.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, said: “It’s a matter for Formula One but let me be clear we always stand up for human rights and it’s important that peaceful protests are allowed to go ahead. But I think we should be clear, Bahrain is not Syria, there is a process of reform underway and this government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform.”

King Hamad, who attended the final of the controversial three-day Formula One event, pledged his commitment to reform efforts in the kingdom, saying: “I want to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country. The door is always open for sincere dialogue amongst all our people.”

So, will Formula One re-ignite street protests in Bahrain? How far will they go this time round? And is the government really committed to reforms?

Joining Inside Story with presenter Shakuntala Santhiran to discuss this are guests: Ali al-Aswad, a former Bahraini opposition MP and member of the al-Wefaq Party; Mahjoob Zweiri, an assistant professor in Contemporary History and Politics of the Middle East at Qatar University; and Fahad al-Binali, a media official for Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority.

“What is happening in Bahrain today is the unseen or untold stories about the relationship between the dynamics of internal politics in a country like Bahrain and the importance of a sports event like the Formula One.”

Mahjoob Zweiri, assistant professor of Contemporary History and Politics of the Middle East