Academic Dr Justin Gengler writes for Foreign Policy on some of the local dynamics structuring opposition to (and support for) the Bahrain Grand Prix:
Since its first running in 2004, the Bahrain Grand Prix has been a mainstay of the country’s complex political calendar. Indeed, controversy brewed well before a single race could take place, with critics decrying the expense of constructing the vast Bahrain International Circuit even as many citizens struggled to find jobs, housing, and affordable land. At the same time, the track’s isolation in the far south of the island — well, as far south as one can go before hitting military fences — fed the notion that the race, hosted not far from Sakhir Palace, was conceived mostly as a diversion for society’s elite, and aptly demonstrated the misplaced social and economic priorities of the ruling family.
As such, the Formula One event consistently has been the occasion for popular protest and violence, giving the impression that the event is but a microcosm of Bahrain’s larger opposition-government divide, with the latter pursuing self-serving policies while ordinary Bahrainis try in vain to effect meaningful change.
The reality, however, is more complex. Whereas Bahrain’s decentralized street movement vowed to target the Financial Harbor “to demonstrate revolutionaries’ rejection of the Formula One race,” the continuing protests of the moderate opposition aim instead to capitalize on the event for its own political ends. “We do not want to hold up the race,” explained al-Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman, “but we are trying to benefit from the increased media presence.”
Accordingly, that Formula One has returned to Bahrain following its absence in 2011 is most notable not for overcoming domestic or international pressure, but for having escaped the fate of [Crown Prince] Sheikh Salman’s other flagship political and economic initiatives. These include innovative but (among business owners) unpopular labor market reforms that incentivized employment of Bahraini citizens over foreign migrants, as well as the Economic Development Board, once a virtual shadow cabinet chaired by the crown prince that today barely functions.
Like these now-defunct institutions, the Bahrain Grand Prix represents part of a larger economic strategy launched by King Hamad bin Isa shortly after his 1999 succession and eventually superintended by his son Sheikh Salman. The program, a complement to simultaneous (if largely illusory) political liberalizations, aimed to end Bahrain’s overwhelming fiscal reliance upon natural resources in general and upon oil and gas provided by Saudi Arabia in particular.
Among other efforts to diversify the sources of state revenue, Bahrain courted Western and Gulf Arab tourists through the promotion of a liberal social climate and high-profile international events. In addition to making the country’s economy more competitive and diversified, this long-term strategy also sought to chip away at the lines of economic-cum-political patronage upon which the king’s challengers within the ruling family, in particular the powerful prime minister, depended.
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