MANAMA, April 22 — Formula One drivers will race in Bahrain today while rage boils on the streets outside, among protesters who denounce the Grand Prix as a gaudy spectacle by a ruling family that crushed Arab Spring demonstrations last year.
Demonstrators hurling petrol bombs have clashed nightly with police during the past week, and security forces responded with teargas, rubber bullets and birdshot.
Black smoke from burning tyres wafted over Budaiya this morning, before the final race. Budaiya, outside the capital of Manama, was the scene of mass protests on Friday.
The death of 36-year-old protester Salah Abbas Habib — found sprawled on a rooftop yesterday after overnight clashes — provides more fuel for outrage among a Shi’ite Muslim majority that complains of being marginalised by ruling Sunnis.
His funeral could be held today if his family recovers his body, setting the stage for riots on race day.
The luxury sporting event is the government’s chance to prove that life has gone back to normal in the island kingdom after security concerns over anti-government demonstrations forced last year’s race to be cancelled.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who will attend today’s race, said in a statement overnight that he wanted “to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country. The door is always open for sincere dialogue amongst all our people.”
Bahrain, a close military ally of the United States, is the only one of the Gulf monarchies to have been seriously threatened by Arab Spring protests that brought down the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen since the start of 2011.
“Our initial demands were to elect a new government but after the disgusting abuse we received, all the people are asking for is for the regime to fall,” said protester Ahmed Madani during a march of 7,000 people yesterday.
Some banners held up during the march depicted Formula One race car drivers as riot police beating up protesters.
The violence outside has had virtually no impact within the sealed bubble of Formula One, apart from a few staff of two teams who witnessed a petrol bomb-throwing incident.
Red Bull’s world champion Sebastian Vettel, who starts at pole position, said shortly after arrival on Thursday that he thought much of what was being reported was hype.
He looked forward to getting in the car and dealing with the “stuff that really matters - tyre temperatures, cars”.
But nightly TV images of streets ablaze with clouds of smoke and teargas are an embarrassment for Formula One and the global brands that lavish it with sponsorship. Thomson Reuters, parent company of Reuters, is a sponsor of the Williams Formula One team.
Jean Todt, president of Formula One’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation, broke a media silence yesterday to say he was sorry “about what has been reported”.
“I am not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country,” he added.
The Bahrain government says it has enacted reforms after cracking down on demonstrators last year while revolts were sweeping across the Arab world.
Bahrain’s government is thought to have spent US$40 million (RM136 million) to host the event. While motor sports journalists have been invited to cover it, reporters from Reuters and some other news organisations who normally write about Middle East politics have been denied visas.
Hackers brought down the F1 website intermittently on Friday and defaced another site, f1-racers.net, to support what they described as the Bahraini people’s struggle against oppression.
The race has drawn more than 100,000 visitors and generated over US$500 million in spending. It has been a symbol of pride for the ruling royal family since Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa brought the first Formula One Grand Prix to the region in 2004.
The continued hunger strike of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 men jailed for leading last year’s uprising, is further inflaming the street and his health has entered a critical stage after more than 70 days. His family says he stopped taking water on Friday, raising fears for his life.
The Interior Ministry said on Sunday via Twitter that Khawaja was in “good health”. Khawaja is due to meet the ambassador from Denmark, where he also holds citizenship, which has asked for Khawaja to be released into their care. — Reuters