Byline: PATRICK MARTIN
JERUSALEM -- The Bahrain Grand Prix Formula One race went ahead as planned Sunday despite appeals by protesting citizens who have struggled for 14 months for the kind of democratic reforms fought for in several countries across the Arab world.
Bahrain's ruling monarchy, the al-Khalifa family, was determined to show that, in spite of the protests, life was back to normal in the small Persian Gulf state that serves also as a base for the U.S. Navy's 5th fleet.
But when all the smoke from the race and the week's riots had been cleared away, it was the underdog protesters who had won the public relations contest.
Bahrain's crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa had insisted the race would serve to unite the people, badly divided since protests erupted in February last year.
The demonstrators, however, would have none of it and they captured world attention by a week of protests and rioting, while the racers performed before half-empty grandstands.
For most of the past year the international community has seemed oblivious to the struggle in Bahrain, but thanks to the presence of the F1 spectacle and its media attention, the uprising was revitalized.
Bahrain's protests began even before those of Syria, its majority Shia citizenry calling for equality of rights and opportunity from the ruling Sunni monarchy.
While figures vary, there are about 1.2 million people in Bahrain and about 650,000 of them are non-Bahrainis. Of the 550,000 Bahraini citizens, more than two thirds, or about 370,000, are Shiites. This means that fewer than 200,000 are the privileged Sunni Bahrainis.
The Sunni population generally doesn't want for things, and most of the foreign population is employed, having been brought to the country to work.
Those wanting for quality jobs, decent housing and real political rights hail from the Shia majority.
Why then have all the other uprisings in the Arab world garnered wide-spread support when Bahrain's has been largely ignored?
All the other uprisings have pitted largely Sunni opposition against mostly secular autocracies. Bahrain's, however, pits Shia against Sunni. And while all the other uprisings from Tunisia to Syria have won support from Gulf Arab states, particularly from Saudi Arabia and the regime down the coast in Qatar, the only regime to even express support for the Shia masses in Bahrain has been Iran, a Shia country and the regional outcast.
Instead of support for the people, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council were quick to order troops into Bahrain in February last year, not to protect the protesters as they did in Libya or to lobby for the opposition as they are doing in Syria, but to defend the regime.
Not only do these Sunni nations not like to see Shiites sticking it to Sunnis, they also don't like a monarchy to go down, setting a dangerous precedent for other Arab monarchies.
By its silence, Washington acquiesced in the Sunni tactics - it could hardly cheer for a Shia community championed by Iran, the nuclear outlaw, especially when the base of its powerful 5th Fleet could be at stake.
Bahrain's King Hamad al-Khalifa, once known for his support of democratic change, insisted political reforms will go ahead.
"I want to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country," he said before the start of the F1 race. "The door is always open for sincere dialogue amongst all our people."
The King's pledge came as police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters who hurled rocks and fire bombs back at them, chanting "Down with Hamad."