Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Bahrain's Formula 1 for failure

Activist Ala’a al-Shehabi is the latest victim of Bahrain’s dictatorship arrested after a series of articles critical of the repressive regime. Al-Shehabi was arrested last week while taking journalists on a trip around the country during the Grand Prix weekend. She was possible arrested while travelling with the Channel 4 News crew led by Jonathan Miller which was filming illegally in hot spot areas before they were arrested and deported.  Al-Shehabi announced her own arrest on Twitter saying “Under arrest. Surrounded by.”  She was unable to complete the sentence because she was surrounded by 11 police vehicles.  There has been no word of any charges laid since the arrest.

Dr. Ala’a al-Shehabi is an economics lecturer, a founding member of Bahrain Watch and an outspoken democracy advocate. Her arrest came a week after she published a piece for Foreign Policy called Hunger, heroism and hope in Bahrain where she wrote about another prominent Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Al-Khawaja was then into his 64th day of a hunger strike. Al-Shehabi said if he died it could end the regime's efforts to rehabilitate itself. The regime was obviously paying attention. Not only did it arrest her, it also forcibly ended the hunger strike after 77 days by force feeding al-Khawaja who now plans to resume it.

His survival removed another potential embarrassing moment for Bahrain as it dealt with the fall-out from the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Leaving aside the disgrace of Bernie Ecclestone and the sport’s governing body heaped upon motor racing by agreeing for the event to go ahead (exposing once again the oft-repeated lie that sport and politics do not mix), the event did bring some good to Bahrain – it shone a light on the nation’s grievous problems. These problems have only got worse since the regime crushed the Shiite protests in March 2011 with Saudi help and US acquiescence.

A new briefing from the Project on Middle East Political Science called Breaking Bahrain surveys Bahrain’s political stalemate, how it got to this point, and what the future might hold. The briefing said the crackdown torpedoed a political compromise and had wider implications to the region blunting the momentum for change (a strong motivation for Saudi intervention). It also hardened sectarian attitudes between Sunnis and Shiites and exposes US hypocrisy at the same time as it intervened in Libya.

Bahrain’s own Independent Commission of Inquiry report found the Bahraini regime committed wide scale human rights violations during the crackdown. The report documented 35 deaths and found  13 of them were caused by security forces, five more dying of torture and eight more “not attributable to a perpetrator”.  Torture included extremely tight handcuffing, forced standing, severe beatings, electric shocks, burning with cigarettes, beating of the soles of the feet, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, threats of rape and sexual abuse.

A year on, the Bahraini regime has refused to implement the recommendations of the report. They show no sign of admitting there is a problem and are unwilling to countenance any power sharing. When protests started again on 13 February to mark the one year anniversary, the response was swift and brutal. Police fired teargas and stun grenades at protesters who tried to occupy the old Pearl Square, the demolished rallying point of the 2011 protests.  The Government blamed outsiders for the riots. Field Marshall Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, the Bahrain Defence Forces commander in chief told local press a vast array of countries had “mobilised their media, embassies, agents and fifth columns in the Gulf” against Bahrain’s government.

The Grand Prix gave the regime only brief respite. Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa claimed cancelling the race would have empowered the extremists. But the security blanket Bahrain put on to ensure its “success” fooled no-one inside or outside the kingdom.  The protester Salah Abbas Habib was beaten to death by riot police on the eve of the race while there were more journalists in the country more interested in race issues rather than the race. Formula One is a loss leader for Bahrain costing $40 million to run but supposedly stimulating knock-on effect to other business.  But with the country on the front pages and first five minutes of international news, tourism remains on the nose and investment is seen as too risky. Bahrain’s problems will continue indefinitely in the absence of any serious attempts at political compromise.

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