The Formula One (F1) has always been a loss-leader for Bahrain. The country pays a fee to host it — estimated to be at least $40 million each year — and doesn’t recoup this in direct ticket sales. Rather, the race is supposed to stimulate business worth hundreds of millions of dollars through its knock-on effect on other business. A 2008 study commissioned by the state sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat, suggested that the race added $600 million — or about 2.7 percentage points — to Bahrain’s gross domestic product (GDP) that year. This is mostly through the boost that the race gives to tourism, including flights on Bahrain’s state-owned Gulf Air, and through the development of Bahrain’s international "country brand," as millions of viewers around the world watch the race on television.
But this year, tourism is unlikely to perform well — and if anything, the "country branding" impact looks likely to be negative. Internationally, the publicity around the race has drawn attention to the country’s continuing protests and violence, to a new Amnesty International report on the continuing allegations of torture and human rights abuses, and even to a controversial video that shows police taking part in the looting of a Shiite-owned supermarket. Without the race, these developments might not make the news in the West.
This means the picture isn’t as simple as the usual portrayal of a government insisting on holding the race while the opposition protests against it. Yes, Bahraini officials have sought to make political capital out of the race, hoping it will send a message that the country is back to normal, and branding it as an indication of national unity with a slogan, "unF1ed," which has inevitably proven to be divisive. And yes, protesters from the February 14th Youth Coalition have been burning photos of F1’s president and CEO Bernie Ecclestone in the streets.
Yet the opposition includes diverse viewpoints, and there are also activists from the main and moderate opposition party, Al Wefaq, who welcome the race because it puts Bahrain back in the media spotlight. Some of them also hope — probably forlornly — that the race, always seen as a pet project of Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, will strengthen the hand of the relative moderates in the government. The crown prince’s camp has favored political dialogue and have sought to reduce the economy’s reliance on the Saudi Arabian-administered oil field that provides almost all of the government’s revenue.
Meanwhile, the more hard-line factions within the government may quietly think the race is more trouble than it’s worth, as it brings in nosy journalists who wander off to protest-filled villages (a few say they have been asked to sign pledges not to report outside their sporting remit). After all, from the point of view of the security establishment, the economy is secondary to security, and can ultimately survive on oil revenue and Gulf aid.
Another worry is the risk of violence around the race. The Feb 14th youth movement has made statements about not being able to guarantee the safety of race attendees, but there is no recent history of terrorism against Western targets in Bahrain and it seems unlikely that this line is going to be crossed in the near future. However, attacks on the police have been slowly escalating, from stones to metal rods to homemade Molotov cocktails, and in a new development, a pipe bomb in the village of Al-Eker injured seven police a few days ago. Al-Wefaq condemned the act, however a small but determined minority of opposition youth are desperate to fight the police.
For many, it’s personal — they know people who have been tortured or worse — and, claiming "self-defense," they are seeking vengeance. The government has acknowledged at least 18 civilians died at the hands of security forces between February and April 2011, whereas activists say the number is now up to 80, including around 30 disputed deaths that they blame on the heavy, near-daily use of tear gas in politically active Shiite villages. In these areas, walls are covered with stenciled pictures of the "martyrs" who died in the protests.
Last year’s Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report found that 26 Bahraini civilians, four expatriates, and five members of the security services died in the February to April period. Demonstrators were found to have killed at least three policemen. The government has promised accountability, but so far just 10 junior police officers have been put on trial, while hundreds of demonstrators have been jailed. A new police code of conduct has been introduced, and police were supposed to have had their guns taken away, but people in the Shiite villages say they still beat people, burn them with lighters, or threaten them with sexual assault. Police have been filmed lobbing their own Molotov cocktails at protesters. Cameras have been installed in police stations, but the riot police have set up new holding centers with no such oversight. A report released this week by Amnesty International described impunity as rampant.
There are some within the regime who are seeking to bring in greater accountability and a more intelligent approach to policing, but power seems to be firmly in the hands of the hardliners, and reformists, such as they are, will be further weakened by the escalating attacks on police. In the run-up to the F1, security measures have intensified; opposition sources say more than 60 activists (the government calls them "vandals") have been preemptively detained by the authorities, and that police are again using both birdshot and live ammunition.
For their part, the young people seeking to fight the police no longer believe in reforms or in reformists. While Al-Wefaq hope international attention will help to bring about pressure for political reform, and fear that violent tactics will reduce international sympathy, this angrier, younger group is not interested in the views of Western governments, which they see simply as supporting the Bahraini rulers. Worryingly, recent weeks have also seen the return of Sunni vigilantes, incensed by protester violence, who have threatened to take the law into their own hands if the security services do not respond in a tougher manner. The political scene is increasingly fragmented rather than "unif1ed".
Bahrain still remains largely safe for Westerners. But it can no longer claim to be the oasis of liberalism and tolerance that it once sought to brand itself as. The country has struggled to attract any significant new investment over the last year (with the main exception being a Saudi media company), and a recent survey by regional recruitment specialists Gulf Talent showed that its attractiveness to professional expats has diminished significantly. The F1 media spotlight will only highlight the ongoing troubles Bahrain faces in the absence of any serious attempts at political compromise.
Jane Kinninmont is the Senior Research Fellow on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a UK-based policy research institute. She can be followed on twitter @janekinninmont.