DUBAI (Reuters) - Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel may have won the Bahrain Grand Prix, but there was no winner in the main event: a public relations battle between the ruling Al Khalifa family and protesters in the streets over competing visions of Bahrain.
Masked youths with petrol bombs faced off nightly against riot police in armored vehicles, armed with batons, tear gas, sound bombs and guns firing birdshot. At least one protester was found dead on a rooftop after a clash.
Demonstrators denounced the Grand Prix as a lavish stunt by a government that crushed Arab Spring protests last year and remains out of touch with popular demand for change.
The government accused activists of exaggerating the unrest and sabotaging the country’s image.
“In terms of the public relations battle it’s been a loss for government. But no one won overall - I think it has added to the existing divisions,” said Jane Kinninmont, an analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank.
“The opposition are more angry about deaths and beatings, while the pro-government camp is upset that the protesters hold up economic development and shocked at the media coverage.”
The race was cancelled last year after Arab Spring protests, mainly by the Shi‘ite Muslim majority whose members feel marginalized by a minority Sunni elite.
The government put last year’s protests down by force, swept demonstrators off the streets and bulldozed the highway roundabout where they were camping. Thirty-five people, including members of the security forces, died in the crackdown.
According to an independent commission set up by the government, many of those arrested were tortured in custody.
When Washington, which has its regional naval headquarters in Bahrain, threatened to cancel an arms deal, the kingdom took its reputation seriously.
The race was marketed in Bahrain with the slogans “uniF1ed” and “one nation, one celebration”.
“I would like to wish all the Formula One teams today the best of luck,” King Hamad said in a message on Sunday before the race, “And thank you for showing your faith in our country by coming here.”
Bahrain says it is implementing the independent commission’s recommendations for democratic reforms and life is returning to normal. But the uprising never fully went away and clashes between protesters and police have increased in recent months.
The demonstrators, largely ignored by the Gulf-dominated pan-Arab media, saw the Grand Prix as a chance to take their grievances to the world stage and the government seems to have scored an own goal by barring some non-sports journalists.
“They basically said ‘you’re only welcome if you only cover Formula One’. But some went to find what they were trying to hide,” said Alaa Shehabi, an opposition activist. “The whole media strategy of the last year has backfired. It was focused on hiring PR companies to push their message to journalists.”
The opposition parties, which include secular and Islamist Shi‘ites as well as some Sunnis, want democratic reforms that would empower parliament to form governments and end tight Al Khalifa family control of public life.
More radical elements among the protesters - angered by continuing deaths due to the daily fights with police - want to ditch the monarchy altogether.
They all share a sense of discrimination by an entrenched elite around the ruling family, which brought in Saudi troops last year to help crush the uprising.
Fourteen men jailed by a military court for leading the protests last year remain behind bars, and one of them is in critical condition after more than 70 days on hunger strike.
The death toll in protests since last year now has risen to more than 80, leading opposition party Wefaq says, with many of the deaths due to the effects of massive use of teargas.
The government - which questions the causes of death and dismisses the protesters as hooligans - appears to have been taken by surprise that its narrative came into question.
It has depicted the entire opposition movement as driven by Shi‘ite sectarian interests and beholden to Iran, and argued that the Bahrain turmoil is not an ‘Arab Spring’ event.
Washington has tempered criticisms with concern not to jeopardize ties with a country seen as key to its effort, coordinated with Saudi Arabia, to contain Iran.
But Western officials joined media watchdogs and rights groups in delivering some criticism of Bahrain as the opposition movement succeeded in winning coverage of large marches and protests, despite a massive police effort to pin them down in neighborhoods away from Manama and main roads.
There were signs that some of Bahrain’s elite recognized hosting the event had backfired by giving the opposition a target. One columnist even said so in a newspaper - a rarity in a country where virtually all papers and radio are under the government’s thumb.
“It was obvious that specific media launched a campaign in recent days with one aim: cancellation of F1,” Mohammed Mubarak Jumaa wrote in Akhbar al-Khaleej. “Bahrain should change its policy now on hosting large events.”
Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher