Formula One brings new focus to Bahrain protests


A man in Bahrain walks past graffiti calling for the cancellation of the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain later this month. The sign reads, "Are you racing on the blood of martyrs?"



Since Bahrain's monarchy crushed a popular uprising last year, Bahraini activists have had a hard time getting the attention of the international community.

Now, it seems, they are getting a boost from an unlikely source — Formula One racing.

The FIA, the league that organizes Formula One, will meet this weekend in Shanghai to discuss whether or not they should cancel an upcoming Grand Prix race in Bahrain. Continuing violence in the country has sparked concerns for the safety of racers and fans.

The possible cancellation of the Formula One race has re-inserted Bahrain's unrest into the headlines. Yay sports!

Bahrain has been gripped by almost daily clashes between government security forces and protesters calling for a more democratic state. Large-scale protests in the spring of last year led to a nationwide crackdown. But smaller protests have persisted. A jailed activist who has been on a hunger strike now for more than two months has recently emboldened the protest movement, which seized on the Formula One race to draw attention to their cause — a strategy that appears to be working.

There has been little coverage of the Bahrain uprising since the crackdown last year. It has been vastly overshadowed by developments in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Bahrain, however, is strategically important internationally and is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean, including several key shipping lanes. Although the United States condemned the violent crackdown by the Bahraini government last year, it has not supported regime change as it did in Libya, Syria and Egypt.

More from GlobalPost: Why the protest movement in Bahrain failed

Bahrain had long been a tiny, idyllic Gulf country that often played host to international sports events. But all that changed last year. If the Formula One race is canceled, it will be the second time in two years.

Some have cast Bahrain's uprising as a sectarian conflict. The royal government is drawn entirely from the Sunni branch of Islam, while the majority of the country is Shiite. While there has been violence between Sunni and Shiites in Bahrain, GlobalPost correspondent Caryle Murphy, who reported from Bahrain last year, wrote that the sectarian nature of the uprising was only incidental. Most people Murphy spoke to said they simply wanted a more democratic government and equal rights.

The activists are up against more than their own government, however. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, which is struggling with its own percolating protest movement, appears intent on not allowing Bahrain's to succeed. Saudi Arabia fears greater Shiite, and thereby Iranian, influence so close to home. So much so, that the country sent in columns of its own tanks to help crush the protest movement last March.

But, hey, why let all this get in the way of the Grand Prix?