Bahrain’s Formula One Gala Not Going as Planned

The Sunni monarchy has been hoping that the Formula One Grand Prix, its showcase annual event, would restore Bahrain’s stature as a stable Persian Gulf kingdom, blighted after months of antigovernment protests by the Shiite majority that led to the cancellation of the race last year. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening. While Bahraini officials vow that the Grand Prix will be held as planned on Sunday, Shiite opposition groups and rights organizations have denounced the race as a public relations stunt that has sought to mask what they call the monarchy’s failures to address causes of political discontent here.

Clashes between protesters and the police, which never really went away during 14 months of unrest, have intensified in the week leading up to the race, which opposition groups have called the “days of rage." Cartoons ridiculing Bahrain’s crown prince and Bernie Ecclestone, the British leader of the Formula One race organization, have been scrawled on the walls of Shiite suburbs and villages, including one depicting them co-piloting a race car with tear gas bellowing from the tailpipes.

Bahraini officials and race organizers have reacted defensively, asserting the government is addressing the Shiite grievances. They have denounced news coverage of the protests, calling the media isolated, and banned some foreign journalists sent to cover the race, apparently fearing that they would report on the protests. Security checkpoints and roadblocks line the route to the race track; visitors pass through metal detectors and must surrender all liquids as if at an airport check-in.

On Friday, tens of thousands of men, women and children took to the streets carrying signs that read “Hear Our Voices" and “Down With the Government." They did not call for cancellation of the race, but it was one of the biggest displays of defiance yet to the ruling members of Bahrain’s Khalifa family, undercutting their portrayal of Formula One’s return as a reaffirmation of their legitimacy and an event that would unite the country.

“It’s definitely backfired on them," Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch in New York, said in a telephone interview. “It seems like their main focus is managing this as a P.R. exercise, but it’s impossible to repress the reality, which is that there is a great simmering discontent." More at NY Times

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