The Middle East Channel

Who needs the Bahrain Grand Prix?

Who needs the Bahrain Grand Prix?

Since its first running in 2004, the Bahrain Grand Prix has been a mainstay of the country’s complex political calendar. Indeed, controversy brewed well before a single race could take place, with critics decrying the expense of constructing the vast Bahrain International Circuit even as many citizens struggled to find jobs, housing, and affordable land. At the same time, the track’s isolation in the far south of the island — well, as far south as one can go before hitting military fences — fed the notion that the race, hosted not far from Sakhir Palace, was conceived mostly as a diversion for society’s elite, and aptly demonstrated the misplaced social and economic priorities of the ruling family.

As such, the Formula One event consistently has been the occasion for popular protest and violence, giving the impression that the event is but a microcosm of Bahrain’s larger opposition-government divide, with the latter pursuing self-serving policies while ordinary Bahrainis try in vain to effect meaningful change. 

This view would seem to find evidence today. Making good on threats to disrupt the upcoming race scheduled for April 19 to 21, on Sunday night members of Bahrain’s village-based youth movement, the February 14th Coalition, coordinated a series of (non-lethal) explosions across the northern part of the island, including in the politically-sensitive Bahrain Financial Harbor. (The Saudi-led military intervention that effectively ended Bahrain’s uprising in March 2011 occurred soon after protesters moved to occupy the harbor.)

These attacks, styled "Operation: Ultimatum 3," follow a week of mass demonstrations organized by formal opposition societies, including the main Shiite bloc, al-Wefaq. The largest protest, on Friday, saw a one-mile long stretch of protesters blocking a key highway. The race, then, would seem to be a target of both the formal and informal opposition, a rare point of agreement between two factions of Bahrain’s majority Shiite population that otherwise differ widely in their political tactics and platforms.

The reality, however, is more complex. Whereas Bahrain’s decentralized street movement vowed to target the Financial Harbor "to demonstrate revolutionaries’ rejection of the Formula One race," the continuing protests of the moderate opposition aim instead to capitalize on the event for its own political ends. "We do not want to hold up the race," explained al-Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman, "but we are trying to benefit from the increased media presence."

In particular, al-Wefaq and other opposition societies seek to highlight what they view as the government’s lack of seriousness in its sponsorship of an ongoing national dialogue, the modalities of which have still yet to be established after almost a dozen sessions dating to mid-February. The opposition has asked for a representative of the king to participate in the talks, as well as a popular referendum to ratify the outcome. The state rejects both demands, insisting that the talks are not political negotiations but a dialogue among "constituents of the society," implying that the country’s now two-year political conflict is a problem between Sunnis and Shiites rather than citizens and government.

This distinction between the aims of Bahrain’s two opposition currents is an important one, and it helps explain yet another neglected dimension of the conflict over the Grand Prix: the disagreement within the ruling family itself. Contrary to the image of Al Khalifa hardliners bent on hosting the race over the objections of their people, in fact the event’s longtime sponsor — and perhaps only remaining high-level patron — is Crown Prince Salman, whose moderate and pragmatic politics is widely regarded as the best hope for bringing an end to Bahrain’s perennial turmoil. 

Unfortunately, following an embarrassing public failure to negotiate an end to mass protests in March 2011, the crown prince has been utterly sidelined within the ruling family, a recent appointment to the nebulous position of "first deputy prime minister" notwithstanding. In his place has emerged a newly-empowered coalition of security-minded royals known as the Khawalid, after the branch of the Al Khalifa family from which they descend. The Khawalid, the central figures of whom are longtime advisors and close personal friends of King Hamad, have coordinated with other conservative forces within the ruling family, in particular prime minister of 42 years Prince Khalifa bin Salman, to obstruct efforts to end the country’s impasse (and are even accused of sabotaging crisis negotiations in March 2011).

Accordingly, that Formula One has returned to Bahrain following its absence in 2011 is most notable not for overcoming domestic or international pressure, but for having escaped the fate of Sheikh Salman’s other flagship political and economic initiatives. These include innovative but (among business owners) unpopular labor market reforms that incentivized employment of Bahraini citizens over foreign migrants, as well as the Economic Development Board, once a virtual shadow cabinet chaired by the crown prince that today barely functions.

Like these now-defunct institutions, the Bahrain Grand Prix represents part of a larger economic strategy launched by King Hamad bin Isa shortly after his 1999 succession and eventually superintended by his son Sheikh Salman. The program, a complement to simultaneous (if largely illusory) political liberalizations, aimed to end Bahrain’s overwhelming fiscal reliance upon natural resources in general and upon oil and gas provided by Saudi Arabia in particular.

Among other efforts to diversify the sources of state revenue, Bahrain courted Western and Gulf Arab tourists through the promotion of a liberal social climate and high-profile international events. In addition to making the country’s economy more competitive and diversified, this long-term strategy also sought to chip away at the lines of economic-cum-political patronage upon which the king’s challengers within the ruling family, in particular the powerful prime minister, depended.

The Bahrain Grand Prix is therefore entangled inextricably with Al Khalifa politics. To the prime minister, whose exit from political life is perhaps the most universal rallying cry of the February 14 uprising, the event symbolizes no less than a direct challenge. To the Khawalid, whose conservatism is rooted in deep suspicions of Bahraini Shiites as ostensive Iranian agents, the scrutiny it invites is simply not worth the trouble. Better, by their view, to spurn the race, along with other political pressure points such as the U.S. naval base home to the Fifth Fleet, than to compromise on matters of security and ultimately regime survival.

Thus it is that the moderate opposition, even as it denounces the race for legitimizing the repressions and violations of the state, nevertheless recognizes its practical utility, and doubtless would be loath to see it go. Indeed, long before it served to draw attention to Bahrain’s forgotten contribution to the Arab Spring, the Grand Prix was jokingly known as the bringer of royal pardons, as jailed activists were predictably released every spring to avoid embarrassing protests during the festivities.

The day that Bahrain dispenses with the race, shrinks from international engagement to turn inward and toward its Arab Gulf neighbors, is the day that Al Khalifa conservatives — not protesters — will have won their battle.  The implications of
which will be decidedly unwelcome both to Bahrain’s opposition movement and the international community.

Justin Gengler is a senior researcher at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) of Qatar University.