Bahrain: What You Won't See at F1

Just 10 days before car racing's biggest event, the Formula One race (F1), is scheduled to hit Bahrain, serious questions are emerging about whether the country can or should host the sporting event. Human rights activists point to a barrage of ongoing abuses that they argue discredit the government from putting on an international spectacle. Most immediately, a political prisoner, human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is entering the 62nd day of a hunger strike—and no one is sure of his health condition.

This is an ethical argument: that making merry is inappropriate in a country that still witnesses daily injustices. But from a mere logistical perspective, Bahrain likely is capable of hosting the event. That's because the formation of this uprising has changed dramatically in recent months—and the crackdown has grown adept at forcing protests into small geographical pockets. In other words, if the F1 happens, it's likely to be accompanied by a martial law—but fans might not even notice.

Toward the end of last week, as I was about to leave the tiny Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain, a fellow foreigner remarked offhandedly that he had just experienced teargas for the first time. This friend had arrived perhaps half a year earlier, and he was no stranger to the political scene, but he had never been caught up in the daily protests and crackdowns that have literally become life for much of this country's population.

His story struck me as telling: in the 14 months since the Arab Spring landed on the island nation, the revolution has shifted—not in aim or ambition, so much as in aesthetic. Particularly since Bahrain reorganized its police under the advice of a former Miami police chief, protests have been pushed off the main thoroughfares and public spaces. In the shining shopping malls and near the financial hubs, Bahrain is indistinguishable from other countries in the region. If you wanted to ignore the ongoing turmoil, you probably could. And many people do.

This is what could very well happen when the F1 comes to Bahrain, as it plans to do on April 20. Tight security is promised; the racetrack is far enough away from most communities that the distinctive odor of smoke and teargas would be unlikely to reach it. Fancy hotels are separated from the strife by highways and roadblocks.

But the turmoil isn't gone—it's just undercover. Daily—and sometimes many times a day—the country's countless Shia villages host a cycle of protests and crackdowns that cripples life in the communities. The protestors demonstrate, they're met with a police reply. It's difficult to overstate how consuming this ritual has become: for hours every day following demonstrations, locals just can't go outside for fear of arrest or close-range tear-gassing.

So if the Formula One race does come to Bahrain, this is what will go on—and what fans are unlikely to witness first hand. Activists last week told me they feared that martial law would be imposed on the villages. Already, on key dates or around large protests, checkpoints block the roads in and out of the Shia villages.

What else is likely to happen on Formula One weekend? Expect activists to make the biggest push they can to show that Bahrain is not back to normal—even if no one sees the villages themselves. Despite the roadblocks, the amped-up security, and the distance between the circuit and central Manama, protestors have vowed to make their case. Plenty of journalists will be in town to hear.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

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