Bahrain Grand Prix Has a Winner, and It's Not Arab Monarchies

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

Having been relegated to the minor headlines in both the Arab and Western media, the anti-government protests in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain finally had their moment this weekend.

With foreign journalists and other outsiders descending on the island country for Sunday's Grand Prix race, critics of the monarchy stepped up their activities to take advantage of the audience, while government forces responded as they have all along -- with a strong arm. One activist was found shot dead on a roof, raising suspicions he may have been targeted by security forces. More than 50 protestors and several policemen have been killed since anti-government protests started in February 2011 in Bahrain, which has a population of 1.2 million.

In an editorial, the London-based, Palestinian-owned Al-Quds al-Arabi wrote: "The Formula 1 race generated results that went completely against the government’s wishes." The concurrent protests "allowed the whole world to see that Bahrain is not as stable as the government is promoting and that it features a strong opposition demanding legitimate democratic change.”

On the other hand, commentators writing for newspapers supportive of Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, as well as some other papers financed by Gulf governments, didn't see what the big deal was. They expressed exasperation that other media, including the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera website and TV network, had devoted so much attention to the unrest.

Writing in the Bahraini daily Akhbar al-Khaleej, columnist Muhammad Mubarak Jomaa wrote that it had become “clear that certain satellite channels had greatly escalated their campaign against Bahrain.” Their goal, he theorized, was to stop the Grand Prix race and thereby damage Bahrain. The scheme, he said, had two parts. "The first featured heated attempts to convince the participating teams and crews that taking part in the Bahrain race would be shameful." When this failed, he wrote, there was an effort to scare off people with reports of unrest and possible violence directed against the race.

In his column, Jomaa’s editor, Anwar Abdul Rahman, went further, arguing that the “slanderous claims” in the Western and Arab media were nothing less than an “Iranian plan.” Bahrain's opposition has pushed for greater rights for Shiites, who make up the majority of the country's population but are ruled over by the minority Sunnis. Iran has historic ties to Bahrain and is dominated, politically and in terms of its population, by Shiites. Abdul Rahman's piece did not explain how the Iranians would execute a plan through U.S., U.K. and Qatari media.

As it happens, some Qatari-based columnists have actually supported Bahrain's monarchy. Writing a few weeks before the Grand Prix affair in the daily Al-Arab, Ali al-Zafiri gave the regime of King Hamad and his fellow gulf monarchs a passing grade, considering the alternative. “The countries of the Gulf are not democratic,” he offered. “However, they did not violate people’s dignity as in the case of Syria and others,” a reference to the tens of thousands of Syrians killed, injured and imprisoned since anti-government protests began there more than a year ago. He continued:

They are not fair, but they did build universities, schools, cities and hospitals. This is a duty, but at least these countries achieved it. Also, they made the people partners in the wealth and oil revenues. This was only at a minimal level, but at least they did it.

He concluded, "One can issue a long list of criticism against the performance of the Gulf regimes. However, these regimes are definitely a million times better than the bad Syrian regime and anyone who supports it.”

But being better than the brutal regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad doesn't meet the requirements of Bahrainis who are dissatisfied with their government.

So far, Bahrain's opposition has mostly limited its demands to reforms such as expanded powers for the elected assembly and a redrawing of electoral districts to ensure greater representation for Shiites.

They were encouraged to go further, however, by commentators who, using social media anonymously, were more vociferous than those speaking out in the newspapers. Ahead of the Grand Prix race, Saudi activists, presumably based in the mainly Shiite province of Al-Qatif neighboring Bahrain, set up a number of Facebook groups to support their co-religionists there. One popular page, called “Al-Qatif and Bahrain Are One People, Not Two,” carried a video that appeared to show clashes between Bahraini security forces and young people who chanted “down with Hamad.”

The Saudi rulers, who sent troops into Bahrain last year to support the king, understand well that if Bahraini and Saudi Shiites are one, Hamad is not the only Sunni leader in their sights. Perhaps that is one reason staunch defenders of the Saudi monarchy, like Asharq al-Awsat editor-in-chief Tariq al-Homayed, have become so forceful in accusing Bahrain's opposition of engaging in dangerous sectarianism.

After all, if Shiites gain more rights in tiny Bahrain, then why not in Saudi Arabia?

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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-0- Apr/23/2012 23:09 GMT