Depending on the respondent, Bahrain's Grand Prix is about to be a raving success or a public relations disaster. To King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's monarchy, the Formula 1 race represents a simultaneous break from the island's 14-month uprising and proof that the country is moving forward. "Unified: One nation in celebration" reads the race's slogan as government officials assure F-1 teams and international allies of Bahrain's stability.
"The Formula 1 race allows us to build bridges between communities, get people working together," explained Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, who holds a majority stake in Bahrain's international race. "It allows us to celebrate our nation as an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive."
Unfortunately Bahrain's most tangible sign of unification is found between the foreign muscles supporting King Hamad's government. With the opposition geared up to politicize the race, Bahraini state media has published a continuous flow of optimistic reactions from F-1 teams, all describing limited or no signs of unrest. F-1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone seems bent on topping his own inflammatory rhetoric, telling reporters that Bahrain's protests are "a lot of nonsense. You guys love it. What we really need is an earthquake or something like that now so you can write about that." British Prime Minister David Cameron also signaled his loyal to the King by arguing, "Bahrain is not Syria – there is a process of reform underway."
Translation: Bahraini protesters and those who support their cause are delusional.
The prevailing opinion in the global media contends that King Hamad's strategy is backfiring into instability. Unable to sustain their international attention, opposition leaders and protesters have welcomed the race as a much-needed political lighting rod - Western powers wouldn't be talking about Bahrain at all without F-1. Large-scale protests culminated throughout last week, resulting in dozens of injuries, and a fresh death just marred Sunday's "celebration." Leading activist Nabeel Rajab commented, "The government are using the Formula One race to serve their PR campaign. It's not turning out the way they wanted."
The New York Times captured King Hamad's ludicrous thought process in the opening paragraph of a recent report: "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."
This assessment isn't completely accurate though. While King Hamad keeps a low profile through the skillful utilization of low-intensity tactics, his overall strategy to stop Bahrain's uprising is prolonging the conflict. The Trench has already concluded that Hamad is seeking confrontation on Sunday in order to demonstrate Bahrain's "normality," or else scapegoat the political opposition through the youth coalitions. The monarchy will exploit a loophole in the chaotic streets by holding a Grand Prix that is "absolutely safely and without incident," just as Manama's protests are displaced into the suburbs by a massive security presence. Speaking on behalf of many government loyalists, Shura member Dr. Abdulaziz Abol said, "It is important to study events and incidents first hand and ensure that it is not blown out of proportion. It is there for all to see that Bahrain has returned to normal and life goes on without any hiccups."
In the event a hiccup or two, the monarchy plans to direct its full energy towards slandering the opposition. Canceling the race, according to Crown Prince Salman, would "empower extremists" and any incident on or near Bahrain International Circuit will be attributed to these same "thugs." One prominent member of Al Wefaq, the previously jailed Matar Matar, remarked that King Hamad's government has "decided to control the situation just by excess of force and by using more violence," a statement that applies equally to Bahrain's information sphere. Here the tools of civil disobedience and revolution are twisted into criminality by Western governments and lobbyists.
"We condemn violence in all of its forms," the U.S. State Department's Victoria Nuland said on Friday. "These are unproductive, unhelpful acts in building the kind of meaningful trust and reconciliation that is needed in Bahrain, and we’re calling for, again, Bahraini Government respect for universal human rights and demonstrators’ restraint in ensuring that they are peaceful."
What's unhelpful to Bahrain's prosperity is King Hamad's resistance to change and the non-intervention of Western benefactors. Nuland would follow her false standard between the government and protesters by adding, "You know that we have expressed our support for a large number of measures that the Bahraini Government has taken to implement the independent commission’s investigation, but we’ve also been quite clear about the work that remains to be done." In reality, the monarchy has doomed reconciliation prospects by refusing to hold comprehensive and inclusive negotiations with the opposition, then applying force to Bahrain's demonstrations and funerals.
King Hamad and his allies view Sunday's race as a win-win scenario, but this thinking is leading his country deeper into stalemate.