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Riot police officers stand near an anti-Formula One graffiti during an anti-government protest in the village of Diraz

This year’s Formula One race in Bahrain was again accompanied by extensive anti-government rallies around the capital, Manama. Although protesters were kept well away from the race itself, which is held at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, the violence that accompanied the protests, and the accompanying crackdown, highlighted the paucity of political progress since last year, when the international event returned to the country after being suspended during the 2011 unrest.

Policing was tightened up in advance of the event, with an international human rights group, Human Rights Watch, drawing attention to a campaign of pre-emptive arrests in Shia villages, while local activists published photos of protesters wounded by birdshot, and villages doused with tear gas, both to disperse (and deter) protests. There were no recorded fatalities, however; in contrast, one person died during the anti-Formula One protests in 2012.

F1 flashpoint

The Formula One Grand Prix has been a focal point for opposition protests, as it draws the international media to Bahrain, which, prior to 2011, rarely found itself in international headlines except when Formula One came to the kingdom. For the same reason, the government is particularly keen on containing protests during the race itself.

Hosting such a major international event also poses problems for Bahrain’s Ministry of Information, which tightly regulates access to the country. Although the race necessitates providing visas to more journalists than would normally be allowed, the authorities are still keen to restrict the coverage of protests. A U.K. film crew from ITN, one of the major U.K. news broadcasters, was deported before the race after filming protests. Although ITN said its team had valid media visas, police told the crew they were violating other regulations and had to leave the country.

“Overall, the race was a flashpoint that has passed for another year, rather than a game-changer.” – The Economist Intelligence Unit

As was the case in 2012, the main opposition group, al-Wefaq, held a number of marches and rallies in the run-up to the race rather than organizing a major protest on the day of the event itself. However, al-Wefaq has avoided condemning the race, as it is now taking part in a dialogue with the government. In addition, al-Wefaq has been particularly forthright in its efforts to reopen a dialogue directly with the kingdom’s dovish crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who has always been the race’s main patron.

A protester holds up a cardboard replica of a Formula One race car at an anti-government rally in Budaiya, near Manama April 19, 2013. (Reuters)

Al-Wefaq’s careful positioning has helped the race avoid more serious disruption, although it has also drawn criticism from more radical opposition groups, notably the February 14th Youth Coalition, which claimed responsibility for blowing up an empty car in the center of the capital the week before the race. It subsequently also published videos and sent out tweets threatening more serious disruptions, although, in the end, these did not occur. The restart of the national dialogue is one of the main differences from last year, but it has yet to yield concrete results, with the sessions that have been held since February focusing mainly on arguments over process.

Counting the cost

Overall, the race was a flashpoint that has passed for another year, rather than a game-changer. The authorities will be comforting themselves that the protests were no worse than last year and that the direst threats did not come to pass, while opposition groups will count the temporary rise in media coverage of the race as a relative victory.

The government has slightly tempered its PR around the race; whereas in 2012 billboards trumpeted the supposed “uniF1ed” nature of Bahraini society around the race, this year the crown prince told reporters “there is a lot more to do,” citing concerns about both civil rights and law and order. He also told the BBC that Formula One brought $500 million in indirect benefits to the country (although it was not entirely clear what this claim was based on), and that a survey had shown 77 percent of the population wanted the race. However, in comments that will no doubt have displeased his Bahraini hosts, Bernie Ecclestone, the president of Formula One, joked with reporters that the government was “really stupid” to put on the race because it was a platform for protesters.

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa (R) speaks with Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone at the Sakhir circuit, south of Manama April 21, 2013. (Reuters)

Whatever the case, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the race attracted more adverse outside publicity than it did more positive, or even sport-oriented, coverage. As a result, even if the race itself does succeed in bringing in an influx of foreign tourists, the event shines a light on the country’s ongoing internal problems, especially relative to its more stable neighbors. In an example of how far it has fallen, in mid-April a U.K.-based consultancy, Z/Yen, placed Bahrain below Riyadh, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha in its Global Financial Centers Index (which assesses the attractiveness of global financial hubs). With the national dialogue bogged down, and protests persisting, it will take a major breakthrough for Bahrain to make up the lost ground on its regional rivals.

This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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The Economist Intelligence Unit

This post has been authored by experts of The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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