Bahrain’s monarchy was determined, having cancelled last year’s Formula One Grand Prix due to violent unrest that necessitated an armed intervention by neighboring Saudi Arabia, that this year would be different. The race would go on! And so it did, with Sebastian Vettel the winner. The early race reporting highlighted that it was “incident-free.” Hardly.
The grand prix was overshadowed by clashes between protesters and security forces in the days leading up to race day. Protesters demanded political reforms that Bahrain’s ruling family have promised, but so far not delivered. They hoped to create enough mayhem to force the government to cancel the race. The opposition was not successful, but they probably got more attention with the race being held than they would have otherwise.
A year ago, in the wake of dramatic change in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain was the start of the counter-revolution. The government literally blew up Pearl Square to avoid the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, overwhelmed by the commanding photo of Tahrir Square he could not make disappear. Bahrain gradually receded from the headlines, supplanted by the NATO intervention in LIbya and more recently the tragic stalemate in Syria.
The protests put Bahrain back in the headlines. and not in the way the monarchy had in mind. The government promoted the Grand Prix as “UniF1ed – One Nation in Celebration.” The Al Khalifa family, Sunni rulers over a Shia majority kingdom in the shadow of more powerful and feuding neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia, hoped the race would reverse its public diplomacy fortunes and once again depict the Kingdom as a progressive (in relative terms of course) financial, cultural and sports center. It tried to put to replace the images of political repression from a year ago. Instead, it only updated them.
And, in terms of U.S. public diplomacy, the Obama administration’s muted comments about respecting human rights and encouraging the Bahrain government to do more to implement the recommendations of an independent commission report issued late last year stand in stark contrast to its loud and repeated calls for political and social reform in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Given the crisis in Syria and complex dance with Iran over its nuclear program, the United States has been largely an interested spectator with Bahrain over the past year, watching from the grandstand as the government and protesters go round and round the track. Unfortunately, like the Grand Prix, a year later, they remain pretty much where they started.