Over the weekend, Bahrain hosted a Formula One car racing event that was not only meant to bring in lots of sponsorship money, but give the world the image of a unified Bahrain. All of that backfired when protesters and police in riot gear took to the streets, with at least one protester dying as a result.
“Bahrain’s government has spent $40 million to host the global luxury sporting event, hoping to demonstrate that normal life has returned to the Gulf island kingdom after it cracked down harshly on Arab Spring demonstrations last year,” Reuters wrote over the weekend. “But vivid televised images of streets ablaze threaten to embarrass Formula One and the global brands that lavish it with sponsorship.”
Protesters called the event “PR for dictators,” though expert onlookers say the government didn’t come out of the weekend looking good, despite their best efforts. Reuters noted that for sponsors, this was a case where “sports and ethics” headbutted.
Bahrain’s ruling family, led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has struggled for months to quell the unrest that began as the Arab Spring took hold across the Middle East. Protesters have died and there are allegations of torture, on top of the grievances that are driving citizens into the streets in the first place.
In August it was reported that Qorvis was working with the Bahraini government to “highlight the changes” that are happening in the country. Jalopnik published a detailed story about the situation, saying that the government has hired “many” PR firms to help with its reputation improvement efforts. The article says Qorvis is being paid $40,000 per month plus expenses for its services.
Besides the attempts to quiet protesters, The Hollywood Reporter says that a team of reporters from Britain’s Channel 4 News were expelled from the country for trying to cover the weekend protests.
Last year’s Formula One event was cancelled because of Arab Spring protests. “You know what they say – there is no such thing as bad publicity,” said Bernie Eccelstone, the Formula One chief. Actually, there is.