Bahrain F1: Deaths or glory?

2012-04-06 10:18

MANAMA, Bahrain - A year after an anti-government revolt forced Bahrain's rulers to cancel the kingdom's coveted Formula 1 GP the event is again smack in the middle of a power struggle.

Protesters aiming to break the Sunni regime's grip on power have stepped up their campaign against the event with rallies across the island, anti-F1 posters on walls, and criticising F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and race drivers on social media websites.


The country's leadership is determined to stage the April 22 race as it seeks to show signs of stability nearly 14 months after the country's Shi’ite majority began a sustained uprising and a greater voice in the affairs of a kingdom that is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet.

Opposition supporters are equally determined to spoil the party to focus attention on their grievances.

"We don't want F1 in our country," Ali Mohammed said during a recent rally against in the capital, Manama. "They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent?

"Nobody will enjoy the GP in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race.”

Human-rights groups have criticised the decision of the world racing body to reinstate the race. Bahrain's Shi’ite majority is demanding more rights and opportunities, equal to the Sunni minority that rules Bahrain.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights to the nation’s GP. He is also commander of the armed forces. Although the race is the island's premier international event, many Bahrainis see it as a vanity project of the rulers who are behind the crackdown on dissent.


The race was cancelled in 2011 after the authorities imposed martial law and launched a punishing crackdown on dissent. At least 50 people have been killed and hundreds tried on anti-state charges by a special security court, among them more than 100 athletes, coaches and sports officials.

Dozens are in prison, one of them a prominent human-rights activist serving a life sentence for his role in the uprising. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been on a hunger strike for more than 50 days and opposition supporters rally every day for his release, often carrying al-Khawaja's picture and posters calling for cancellation of the GP.

Human-rights organisations have warned Bahraini authorities that al-Khawaja could die and appealed to those involved in the race to stay away.

"It is impossible to imagine that the GP will go ahead if Abdulhadi al-Khawaja dies in prison," said Mary Lawlor, executive director of Irish rights organisation Front Line Defenders. "The Bahraini authorities clearly want to present a ‘business as usual’ image but their seeming indifference to the plight of Abdulhadi risks tragic consequences."


In February, 2012, an opposition group driving the year-long uprising warned Bernie Ecclestone against staging the Bahrain race "at a time when children are being killed in the streets”. It said the GP’s return to the Gulf kingdom would "imprint it with the image of death and human-rights violations”.

Race organisers, however, remain committed to staging the race with its worldwide TV audience of around 100-million in 187 countries. It has been Bahrain's most profitable international event since 2004 when it became the first Arab country to host the race.

F1 World champions Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher in March, 2012, backed the decision to go ahead with the Bahrain GP despite opposition and almost daily street confrontations between security forces and opposition supporters.

Ecclestone has dismissed continued unrest and opposition to the race, saying "it's all nonsense", after lunching with the Bahrain International Circuit executives. "Of course the race is going to happen,” he said. “No worries at all.”

Racing officials in the Gulf kingdom were glowing after Ecclestone's endorsement. The circuit's chief executive, Sheik Salman bin Isa Al-Khalifa, told The Associated Press the GP was a force for good, that it would boost the country's battered economy and ease the deep division between the Shi’ite and Sunni communities.


Many Bahrainis agree that the race will at least bring some sense of normality back to the US-allied island nation that was the Gulf's oasis of openness and modernity before Dubai became the region's boom town.

Farooq Mohammed, a shop assistant in Manama's gold and jewellery market, said: "I would like very much to see the race in Bahrain, not because I love the sport but because it will help business,”

Raed Ali, an 18-year-old high-school student, said he admired the rulers for supporting the race. “I love F1. I really want to go this year," Ali said. "It's become a national sport that our leaders love very much."

Protesters, however, urged international teams and auto racing fans not to reward the Gulf nation with their presence amid the Arab Spring's longest-running street clashes.

Fatima Mohammed, a 19-year-old protester who's been filming tear-gas fuelled clashes between riot police and protesters, said: “Whoever comes to Bahrain for the F1 will not be welcome. Our government is brutal and run by a greedy family which cares only about power and money, not about its people."

Lots more Wheels24 articles on the 2012 Bahrain controversy.

*The video below is of Bahraini state action against general protesters and of protest against the 2012 Bahrain F1 GP. Tell us in the Readers' Comments section below whether you thing the race should go ahead.