* No winner in Grand Prix public relations battle
* Event shone light on forgotten protests
* Divisions have deepened
By Andrew Hammond
DUBAI, April 22 Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel may
have won the Bahrain Grand Prix, but there was no winner in the
main event: a public relations battle between the ruling Al
Khalifa family and protesters in the streets over competing
visions of Bahrain.
Masked youths with petrol bombs faced off nightly against
riot police in armoured vehicles, armed with batons, tear gas,
sound bombs and guns firing birdshot. At least one protester was
found dead on a rooftop after a clash.
Demonstrators denounced the Grand Prix as a lavish stunt by
a government that crushed Arab Spring protests last year and
remains out of touch with popular demand for change.
The government accused activists of exaggerating the unrest
and sabotaging the country's image.
"In terms of the public relations battle it's been a loss
for government. But no one won overall - I think it has added to
the existing divisions," said Jane Kinninmont, an analyst at
London's Chatham House think tank.
"The opposition are more angry about deaths and beatings,
while the pro-government camp is upset that the protesters hold
up economic development and shocked at the media coverage."
The race was cancelled last year after Arab Spring protests,
mainly by the Shi'ite Muslim majority whose members feel
marginalised by a minority Sunni elite.
The government put last year's protests down by force, swept
demonstrators off the streets and bulldozed the highway
roundabout where they were camping. Thirty-five people,
including members of the security forces, died in the crackdown.
According to an independent commission set up by the
government, many of those arrested were tortured in custody.
When Washington, which has its regional naval headquarters
in Bahrain, threatened to cancel an arms deal, the kingdom took
its reputation seriously.
The race was marketed in Bahrain with the slogans "uniF1ed"
and "one nation, one celebration".
"I would like to wish all the Formula One teams today the
best of luck," King Hamad said in a message on Sunday before the
race, "And thank you for showing your faith in our country by
Bahrain says it is implementing the independent commission's
recommendations for democratic reforms and life is returning to
normal. But the uprising never fully went away and clashes
between protesters and police have increased in recent months.
The demonstrators, largely ignored by the Gulf-dominated
pan-Arab media, saw the Grand Prix as a chance to take their
grievances to the world stage and the government seems to have
scored an own goal by barring some non-sports journalists.
"They basically said 'you're only welcome if you only cover
Formula One'. But some went to find what they were trying to
hide," said Alaa Shehabi, an opposition activist. "The whole
media strategy of the last year has backfired. It was focused on
hiring PR companies to push their message to journalists."
The opposition parties, which include secular and Islamist
Shi'ites as well as some Sunnis, want democratic reforms that
would empower parliament to form governments and end tight Al
Khalifa family control of public life.
More radical elements among the protesters - angered by
continuing deaths due to the daily fights with police - want to
ditch the monarchy altogether.
They all share a sense of discrimination by an entrenched
elite around the ruling family, which brought in Saudi troops
last year to help crush the uprising.
Fourteen men jailed by a military court for leading the
protests last year remain behind bars, and one of them is in
critical condition after more than 70 days on hunger strike.
The death toll in protests since last year now has risen to
more than 80, leading opposition party Wefaq says, with many of
the deaths due to the effects of massive use of teargas.
The government - which questions the causes of death and
dismisses the protesters as hooligans - appears to have been
taken by surprise that its narrative came into question.
It has depicted the entire opposition movement as driven by
Shi'ite sectarian interests and beholden to Iran, and argued
that the Bahrain turmoil is not an 'Arab Spring' event.
Washington has tempered criticisms with concern not to
jeopardise ties with a country seen as key to its effort,
coordinated with Saudi Arabia, to contain Iran.
But Western officials joined media watchdogs and rights
groups in delivering some criticism of Bahrain as the opposition
movement succeeded in winning coverage of large marches and
protests, despite a massive police effort to pin them down in
neighbourhoods away from Manama and main roads.
There were signs that some of Bahrain's elite recognised
hosting the event had backfired by giving the opposition a
target. One columnist even said so in a newspaper - a rarity in
a country where virtually all papers and radio are under the
"It was obvious that specific media launched a campaign in
recent days with one aim: cancellation of F1," Mohammed Mubarak
Jumaa wrote in Akhbar al-Khaleej. "Bahrain should change its
policy now on hosting large events."
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Peter Graff and Philippa