Manama is scheduled to hold two races on April 22nd. On the under card, Formula 1 teams will compete for the title of Bahrain's Grand Prix after skipping the island in 2011. Holding a race without resolving the political issues that canceled the last one may seem counterintuitive, but King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa knows exactly what he's doing.
F-1 drivers are mere spectators to his main event: a game of chicken with Bahrain's opposition movement.
On Tuesday Zayed al-Zayani, the chairman of Bahrain's International Circuit, released a vicious info-assault on Bahranis and foreigners alike. Telling CNN that "armchair observers" have driven up a false debate over Bahrain's security, al-Zayani also blamed "huge misconceptions about the current situation" on the "scaremongering tactics of certain small extremist groups on social networking sites." Tasked with coordinating the government's narrative, the Information Affairs Authority (IAA) similarly "directs attention to comments made yesterday by John Yates, former assistant commissioner in the London Metropolitan Police Service, and current adviser to Bahrain's police." Yates said that "pockets of violence" wouldn't stop the race when the island is "95%" safe.
"It's a really important event for this country," he said. "It's hugely important for the economy. There is nothing that in any way warrants for the race to be postponed."
al-Zayani and Yates's comments demonstrate how the monarchy views its F-1 race as a win-win opportunity to defeat Bahrain's protesters. If all goes as planned, the February 14th Youth Coalition and anyone that joins their attempt to obstruct the race will meet the same resistance that guards Manama's Pearl Square. They won't even get near Sahkri, located roughly 20 miles southwest of the capital, and a thick security blanket should catch most of the protesters that slip in closer. Bahrain's government is already packaging the race as evidence of the country's political resolution, and a peaceful event would serve as the latest centerpiece to King Hamad's "reforms."
The monarchy is obsessed with returning Bahrain to normality and F-1 chairman Bernie Ecclestone is eager to assist. On the eve of February 14th demonstrations, Ecclestone dismissed Bahrain's protesters as "a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don't think it's anything serious at all." The F-1 boss has since improved his assessment of the situation in the months-long process of defending Bahrain's Grand Prix, and recently claimed that none of the racing teams have expressed political or security concerns. “Quite the opposite,” he says. “One of the teams sent a person over there recently – and I’ve spoken to them today actually – and they said everything’s perfect, there’s no problem.”
Well-versed in the King's talking points, Ecclestone announced, "It’s up to the people in Bahrain to decide. At this time, they are not canceling the event, so presumably they are happy.”
That's exactly what the monarchy wants the world to believe, but at least one unnamed team principal broke ranks on Monday: “If I’m brutally frank, the only way they can pull this race off without incident is to have a complete military lock-down there. And I think that would be unacceptable, both for Formula One and force Bahrain.”
Conversely, any attempt to disrupt the race will be dropped squarely on Bahrain's opposition. The monarchy had already prepared to steamroll the streets when the February 14th Coalition distributed an explanation of their future actions to Ecclestone, and the group's challenge is being met head-on. Readily dismissed by government officials as Molotov-wielding thugs, the Coalition's injection of energy comes with the price of an easy scapegoat. The leading political group, Al Wefaq, will also be blamed for failing to control the youth and refusing to engage in a dialogue with the government. Other than that, though, life on the island remains "normal."
The monarchy's handling of Bahrain's Grand Prix is laced with irony. In choosing to hold the race without any resolution to the uprising - instead blocking it out entirely - King Hamad is extending the life-span of Bahrain's conflict. His refusal to overhaul the country's parliamentary and judiciary system has generated an unbridgeable trust-gap with the opposition, while unequal negotiating conditions are blocking serious efforts to cross. This process, combined with frequent beatings and gassings, has increased the friction between Bahrain's political and popular opposition, driving up the demand for regime change and further polarizing the country.
April 22nd falls straight in line with this trend, indicating that the monarchy has no plans to alter its current policy. King Hamad still believes that he can beat the opposition in a long-term race, but this type of conflict happens to be the only kind that offers Bahrain's opposition any chance of victory.