Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bahrain in Wonderland

By William Fisher

Hey, great news!
The Arab Spring revolution in Bahrain is over!
And the way I know this is how?

Well, there was this announcement this week from the Board of the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) that the 2012 Formula One Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix will be held from April 20 to 22 at BIC, ‘The Home of Motorsport in the Middle East,’ in Sakhir, a desert area just outside Manama, Bahrain’s capitol.

The directors noted that the race will mark the Kingdom’s eighth hosting of the prestigious Formula One event, and will feature plenty of top-class action being the fourth round of a record-breaking 20-race calendar that makes up the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship.

Last year’s race was cancelled because of what sponsors called “unrest,” but which most of the rest of us described as mindless, heartless, brainless and unspeakable violence. We’re certainly happy that’s all over with now!

And how do I know it’s all over?

I know this also because Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, the prominent Egyptian judge who prepared the government-ordered report on the violence in Bahrain, “expressed his full backing for the race weekend scheduled to take place this April.”

Professor Bassiouni described the Bahrain Grand Prix as “a significant national event”, one that is of “deserved national pride”. He further lauded BIC’s decision to hold the race weekend under the slogan, ‘UNIF1ED – One Nation in Celebration’.

It’s surprising that Judge Bassiouni is endorsing this sporting event with such gusto. He must really believe it presents the opportunity, as he says, “for the people of Bahrain to come together.”

Well, maybe he’s right. After spending months leading a team of investigators looking into the year-long Bahrain “unrest,” few people would seem better prepared to know the situation and how to improve it.

He and his team interviewed government officials, members of the armed forces and the security services, participants in the peaceful demonstrations seeking a larger role in speaking out for respect for human rights, a more representative form of government, and an end to arrest and torture.

King Hamad, who received the report personally, surprisingly accepted all its findings and promised to initiate an immediate dialogue to address the demonstrators’ grievances and launch the reform process.

Well, insiders tell me Judge Bassiouni has either has a major epiphany or he has been snookered big-time. The King’s office has been issuing lots of press releases describing a “national dialogue.” But this dialogue seems more like a monologue. Most of the citizen groups that spearheaded and sustained the months of peaceful demonstrations say they have not been invited to participate in anything that sounds like a meaningful discussion.

Worse yet, security services are still shooting randomly at civilian demonstrators, babies and old people are dying from inhaling tear gas, people, including women and children, are being arrested and routinely tortured by their captors. The bodies of some of the kids, bearing the unmistakable marks of torture, are being returned to their families without explanation.

Doctors are being jailed for treating demonstrators, hundreds of people were fired from state-owned companies have yet to get their jobs back. Demonstrators remember when Saudi troops rumbled down the short causeway that connects the two countries, to help the Bahraini military put down the rebellion. Students expelled from the universities for demonstrating are still expelled. Members of the Shia Muslim majority in Bahrain still feel discriminated against by the Sunni Muslim King and his royal family insiders.

Some elements in the international press are reporting, likely with the helping hands of the army of PR experts hired by the King, that the uprising has been crushed and all is peaceful once again.

Well, I wouldn’t take that to the bank if I were you.

Nonetheless, Bahrain has a very active economic development apparatus, busily promoting high-end tourism, featuring fine dining and a ton of sporting events, including Formula One racing. Its work must go on!

The Crown Prince who met with President Obama told him how important it was for Bahrain to rebuild its image in the tourist community. For the US, Bahrain is also important. – strategically important. America’s Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain.

So, yet again, sport and money have trumped justice in this tiny oil-rich island nation.

Will those who are surprised please raise their hands?

Not to worry. Because we also have the blessing of Formula One Supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who has promised, "there will be no problem with the Bahrain Grand Prix" even though petrol bombs, tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades were used in last week's clash between police and demonstrators in the Gulf kingdom.

I fervently hope Judge Bassiouni is right – that the big Formula One blowout, and all its attendant partying, may be just what’s needed to bring Bahrainis together.

Or not.

Watch this space!