Formula for Controversy

Written by Blake Stilwell, Public Diplomacy graduate student, Syracuse University

This Sunday saw the run of the Bahrain Grand Prix. This is (usually) one of the biggest things to happen in the small Gulf nation. It’s become an integral part of Bahraini culture and national identity. It is so culturally linked to the country that the Bahrain International Circuit is featured on the Half-Dinar note, putting it on par with King Hamad, Bahraini Pearl Divers, and the country’s first oil well, all images on other denominations of currency. The cultural and economic importance of this event, combined with everything that’s been happening in Bahrain in recent weeks, means the F1 season opener was bound to cause a stir. It had all the requisite ingredients for strife: F1 drivers were concerned for their safety. Sponsors were concerned for their image. Anti-government demonstrators were angry at the regime’s use of repression and violence. Pro-government demonstrators were angry with anti-government demonstrators for impeding the economic development of the country. Even the hacktivist collective Anonymous made their presence known as they attacked and brought down official Formula One racing websites and defaced fan sites.  There were many cooks stirring this pot.

The recipe for this international PR disaster goes beyond a simple international competition or bad timing. The real crux of the issue is the will of the people in Bahrain. There are one and a quarter million people living on the island. Most of these are Shiites, ruled over by a Sunni monarchy. The religious makeup of the people contributes to what I think is one of the more difficult aspects of this situation and one of the things shaking the country: its mixture of cultural and socio-religious identity. However, this divide can’t be reduced. Let me clarify.

While the people do identify as Sunni and Shia and class cleavages do exist as a result, the one thing both sides – Sunni/Shia or Anti/Pro-Government – will always agree on is that they love their country. They love Bahrain. They love being Bahraini. The only flag flying at Bahraini demonstrations is the red and white Bahraini flag, unlike in Libya, where the resistance created a new flag, a new identity and a new government. There is no transitional council based in Awali. King Hamad is not shelling Budaiya like Asad is shelling Homs. Manama is not running out of water while al-Qaeda rebels are sacking towns in the desert area. “DOWN IRAN” can be found spray-painted on walls in all areas of the cities: rich and poor, Sunni and Shia. None of the ideologies reflected in this conflict would be willing to destroy the county in order to “save” it. There will be no civil war in Bahrain. King Hamad will never have to flee. Pearl Roundabout could never have been Tahrir Square. The closest the uprising in Bahrain ever came to critical mass was when the GCC intervened across the King Fahd Causeway. There has never been an escalation or concession from either side since. This situation will always be simmering and may never boil over.

After being invited to Bahrain earlier this year, and being immersed in the cultural, political, social, economic, and daily life of the country, I found myself falling in love with the country. The streets are clean, the infrastructure is modern, the people are educated, the scenery is beautiful and their ancient, unique culture is intact.

This perception was unfortunately undercut every night when I stepped off the bus at my hotel in Manama, when my nose would begin to run as the tear gas from miles away permeated the evening air. I am loathe to use the word insidious, because it is unfair to the people of Bahrain who opened their hearts and their homes to me in order to demonstrate their love of country. But the appearance of success comes at the price of democracy and human rights. Inequality does exist. It pervades the culture so much that one side can’t even see it at this point. Neither side of the democracy debate understands the intentions or the mindset of the other, nor do they seek to understand. The average pro-government Bahraini believes the demonstrators simply want the King to be removed or killed, or that the demonstrators are puppets of Iranian infiltrators. Al-Wefaq, the main opposition movement, once controlled a large number of seats in the elected Council of Representatives, but withdrew its support for the government some time ago. I am by no means advocating violence or civil war as a means to an end. The issue of democracy in Bahrain can be solved by plain and deliberate discussion, because there needs to be some kind of general consensus. If the pro-democracy movement wants a change of government, what will that government look like? Will supporters of the monarchy accept that government? What of the radicals on both sides? Will they ever accept a moderate, meaningful change? The lack of will to sit down and understand and engage the other side amounts to an unwillingness to solve the problem.

Al-Jazeera calls the Bahraini uprising a “revolution abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West, and forgotten by the world.” I find this statement overly dramatic and possibly misleading, especially for a news organization that is usually very informative and trustworthy. The general American population is paying as much attention to Bahrain as they ever have (I’ll let the reader determine how much that might be). Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world’s attention is focused on Syria, where they’re continuing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hama ’82 by systematically turning every city into Hama, starting with Homs. People are dying in Bahrain, no doubt, but unlike in Libya and Egypt, nothing is happening in Bahrain to bring the situation to a head and break the impasse of ideology which prevents them from moving forward. Until one side reaches a tipping point, the bloody stalemate is likely to continue.

By the way, The Bahrain Grand Prix is a race, as it turns out, and was won by Germany’s Sebastian Vettal, which made him the only winner in Bahrain this weekend.
Photo By Andrew Griffith from United Kingdom (IMG_2566) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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3 Responses to Formula for Controversy

  1. Pingback: F1 Exposes Complexities in “Bahrain Spring” | Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

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