Last week I attended a press briefing on the Bahrain Grand Prix which included a talk and Q&A session with an expert on the country. They gave a thorough overview of developments since the crisis began two years ago and I thought I’d share some of it here for those interested.
In their view the situation remains in stalemate. The government has made few concessions to the opposition – all the senior members who oversaw 2011′s brutal, sectarian crackdown are still in place. Fewer than ten police have been arrested. Hundreds of protesters have been imprisoned since 2011.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report into what happened was more thorough than expected and set expectations high. But it hasn’t been acted upon and the reform process is now stalled and discredited.
Significantly, the report overlooked evidence that the government had paid thugs to start fights among the protesters in order to discredit them.
The opposition’s attitude to the Grand Prix is divided. Fresh talks between them and the government began in February and although there is nothing to show for them yet Al-Wefaq (the main opposition party) is not pursuing a heavily anti-F1 campaign because they want to negotiate with the government.
Others target the Grand Prix because it is seen as a political propaganda tool of the government – something the “UniF1ed” slogan last year made inescapably obvious. And they have not forgotten the death of a protester during last year’s race weekend.
The impending return of F1 this year led to increased suppression of protesters and those perceived to be affiliated with them (since I went to this briefing there have been stories in the round-up about the government making pre-emptive arrests without producing warrants in villages close to the track).
Policing of the race will increase repression. Teargas is being widely used, there have been deaths caused by canisters being fired at close range and there’s a suspicion that its repeated use in villages is increasing miscarriages.
This is obviously being done to create a positive impression for those visiting for the Grand Prix. It is possible to go to Bahrain and see nothing of the unrest but anyone who gets chance to drive around the country can see the political and economic polarisation – and its consequences – clearly.
In their view the nature of the protests is changing with more fit-for-tat conflict between protesters – especially younger members – and the police. Violence gong both ways. A sincere concern was expressed about the potential consequences if someone with an inclination towards violence were to attack the Grand Prix.
As last year there is the potentially combustible situation of imprisoned protesters being on hunger strike, though the government will most likely resort to force-feeding them to guard against the risk of a death occurring during the race weekend.
The Bahrain government are eager to portray the protesters as “terrorists” and claim they are being supported by Iran. They have been unable to show any proof of Iranian involvement, about which they have a genuine paranoia due to regional politics and religious differences.
By labelling the protesters as Iranian-backed terrorists the government has left itself with little room for manoeuvre when it comes to negotiating with them. In terms of Britain’s relationship with Bahrain, this was characterised as being back to “business as usual”. The Bahrain king has visited the UK (he was at an event marking the coronation of the queen last year).