In the Gulf Arab states, opulent hotels with gold-plated toilet handles, shopping malls larger than several football pitches, cloud-reaching skyscrapers, artificial islands visible from space and almost racially segregated gated communities have all been hailed as "miracles" in the scorching deserts.
These are the visible signs of unregulated capitalism: political systems that are in many ways still very traditional are chasing each other along the road to urban ultra-modernity.
Sporting events have been a quintessential part of this development too – from the Formula One grand prix in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, the World Cup in Qatar, to the tennis championships in Dubai. But growth without equity, as highlighted in Bahrain, is a recipe for disaster.
The continued uprising in Bahrain and the recent battle over the grand prix may be the straw that breaks the camel's back in changing such an agenda. Domestically, the opposition to the Formula One event was not only about an international sporting body providing succour to a repressive regime. It was also a manifestation of anger towards the excesses of prestige projects and the squandering of resources, as well as despair over human rights violations.
Looking ahead, it could be a sign that other status symbols will become battlegrounds for agitation against other Gulf regimes. Qatar – chosen to host the 2022 football World Cup – seems already aware of this and has announced that it will allow trade unions before then.
Another way of viewing the motorsport battle, and the earlier occupation of Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, is as a contest over public space – with aggrieved citizens seeking to appropriate it.
The government's control of public space – which symbolises hegemony by a patriarchal ruling family – has been part of "a fundamental strategy of neoliberalism, for it is in [public] space that the positive image of a place worthy of investment is created," says Marc Owen Jones, a former resident of Bahrain and a doctoral researcher.
This includes the Pearl Monument, which was annihilated to prevent the space being used to challenge the ruling family's authority, as well as the grand prix, which the ruling family is using to market the country's "global urbanism".
The uprising in Bahrain, which began on 14 February last year, has its historical roots in the frenzied development following the oil boom of the 1970s that has led to nearly 20% of the kingdom's land being reclaimed from the sea. This land, valued at around $40bn in a 2010 parliamentary investigation, is registered directly to members of the ruling family, who have left only 3% of beaches for the public to use.
Meanwhile, reliance on a huge foreign labour force (partly for the purpose of demographic engineering) has alienated people within their own country, led to the estrangement of people within the market and driven the desire for economic justice. Aside from pricing people out of the property market, there has been little "trickle-down" effect and events such as Formula One have failed to deliver substantial gains for the impoverished.
Bahrain's rapid urban transformation stands in stark contrast with the reality of relative economic poverty and social and political unrest. By the government's own accounts, the relative poverty line is set at 463 dinars ($1,230) per month. However, the government also reports that the average wage of Bahrainis is only 449 dinars ($1190) per month.
The political and economic elite, largely consisting of members of the royal family and its loyalists, preside over an inherently corrupt system and have huge vested interests in protecting the status quo. Their privileges include managing distributive institutions that accumulate oil revenues from the sale of 150,000 bpd donated by Saudi Arabia, owning huge shares of private and public monopolies, and mass land appropriation.
Taking the Bahrain International Circuit that hosts the Formula One case as a case in point, the government's own audit committee found that the race generated an annual loss for Bahrain of $49m in 2006 and that doesn't seem to have diminished greatly since then. . Many of the business that offer services around the event, such as offices, hotels, taxis, the prime minister, or the crown prince have some stake in.
In Bahrain's hosting of the grand prix, crony capitalism is fighting back with a vengeance, and is seeking to guard the political and economic formulas that have been causing social discontent. The high economic growth rates in the Gulf over the past decade (even taking into account the international financial crisis) have illustrated that these regimes are as susceptible to social unrest as other countries.
The Formula One event and the neoliberal project that it is integrally a part of is not just about politics and economics, it is about violence, risk and security racked upon people. It may be too early to believe that revolutionary dreams will soon replace the realpolitik of oil and money and end the hyper-modern projects of the quintessential Gulf state. But they will one day.