The Bahrain Grand Prix was an opportunity for the kingdom to demonstrate all is well after last year’s uprising, but the weekend race instead highlighted deep divisions between the ruling Sunni dynasty and the Shiite majority.
The three-day sporting event that came to a close on Sunday was presented by the authorities as a sign that security and stability had returned to the kingdom after the Shiite-led uprising in February 2011 was brutally crushed, leaving 35 people dead, according to an independent probe.
A statement by Bahrain’s cabinet on Sunday said the Grand Prix “reflects the confidence the world has in Bahrain’s ability to host such a global event.”
The king and crown prince both portrayed the race as an opportunity to demonstrate the country was on a path to reconciliation.
But Bahrain’s Shiite opposition, including the largest group Al-Wefaq and the more radical February 14 Youth Movement, used the renewed media attention on the kingdom to highlight their demands, with daily protests alleging abuses, marginalisation, and disenfranchisement by the regime.
The weekend demonstrations often spiralled into violent clashes with security forces using tear gas and stun grenades against protesters who shot back with rocks and fire bombs.
And as dawn broke on the morning before racing day, the opposition reported the death of a protester, allegedly at the hands of security forces, renewing calls among international rights groups to call off the race.
The government quickly issued a statement condemning the violence, pledging to investigate and prosecute those responsible “whoever they may be,” but stopping short of admitting any police involvement.
The escalation was no accident.
In a statement released in the days before race, Al-Wefaq announced a week of demonstrations, while the February 14 movement called for “three days of rage” to coincide with the event.
The government meanwhile took preventive measures, making dozens of arrests and barring news reporters from several major news organisations, including AFP, from travelling to the kingdom ahead of the race.
“The revolution never stopped… Only the international media coverage stopped,” said one prominent Shiite activist, who gave his name as Ali, adding that the decision by the ruling Khalifa family to go ahead with the Grand Prix “was a gift to the revolution.”
The violence, clashes and slogans calling for the fall of the regime made world headlines far more than the race itself.
The unrest even reached the isolated desert circuit, under a total security lockdown, on Sunday when at least three women were hauled off by police for holding up pictures of prominent Shiite activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on hunger strike since February 8.
Khawaja’s deteriorating health has raised fears among rights groups that he may die in prison, potentially triggering yet another wave of mass protests in the kingdom.
On Monday, Bahrain’s highest appeals court postponed for a second time in a month a final verdict on Khawaja, who is sentenced to life in prison for plotting to overthrow the regime.
On race day, King Hamad announced he would attend the event, hoping to reassure increasingly nervous participants that the event was safe.
He said he remained committed to reconciliation.
But what little faith the moderate members of the Shiite opposition had in the monarch has faded in recent months as reforms proved hollow, a national dialogue has failed to move forward and political prisoners remain jailed.
On Sunday evening, as teams, sponsors and government officials sipped non-alcoholic champagne and celebrated with post-race festivities at the track, protesters burned tyres and garbage in the streets, chanting “No to the Formula of blood.”
Bahrain’s Grand Prix was “supposed to be a sign of normalisation…what happened is the complete opposite,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of Brookings Doha Centre.
“The race ended up polarising people in Bahrain… We ended up with further divisions,” he added.