The first part of an (unofficially) extended weekend saw Mediolana’s CSO in a place that is about as close as anything comes to his natural habitat: chilling out at an über-modern pizzeria, replete with metallic furnishings and plasma television screen, in London’s infinitely trendy Charlotte Street. But between the alternate slices of succulent, stone-baked primavera and fungi, the pictures being proffered on that crystalline screen were enough to make anyone pause over their pizza: an alfresco press conference featuring none other than Formula 1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone and Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain.
With the sound muted, the pizzeria’s patrons were forced to concentrate on the expressions of this unlikely pair, snapshots which were complemented by a ticker which dutifully transmogrified their defensive outpourings into palatable soundbites. Nonetheless, the lasting impression was that of two men uncomfortably exerting themselves in defending the indefensible: amidst the background of arguably the fiercest crackdown within a Gulf Cooperation Council (‘GCC’) state since the beginning of the Arab Spring, a Grand Prix was being staged with the express purpose of presenting a united – or, to use the official term, ‘UniF1ed‘ – nation.
It backfired spectacularly, with the presence of the Formula 1 circus in a country which in recent times has become most notable for flattening roundabouts only serving to remind the international community that tensions between the Al Khalifa-dominated government of Bahrain and large sections of their subject population (particularly, though not exclusively, the kingdom’s majority Shia community) are very much a live issue.
Why did this expensive PR manoeuvre – the construction cost alone of the German-designed Bahrain International Circuit, a 2004 establishment, was US$150m – fail so badly? Quite simply, it seems that the Bahraini elite – despite all the technological developments of the last thirty-five years, particularly the last fifteen – still believe in a mono-channel, top-down flow of information. They do not appear to have realised that information now flows horizontally from networked device to networked device; that while one global news channel may have an interest in underplaying developments, others may seek to be more objective or even exaggerate the grimness of the situation on the ground; and that events cannot necessarily be hermetically isolated from each other.
In such a context, there is no room for pretence: to escape censure, both governments and individuals have to be seen to be acting within the rule of law, proportionately, and flexibly. Torture and indiscriminate killing in an era when every mobile telephone subscriber is a potential mini news agency is a risky strategy which so-called ‘weapons of mass distraction’ may only serve to draw attention to rather than obfuscate.