Bahrain in drive to bring back Formula One

Race could signal return to normalcy, but Bahraini rights activists aim to block it after violent crackdown on reform-seeking protesters.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
May 22, 2011 17:52
Protesters are seen at Pearl Square, Manama.

Bahrain protests Pearl Square_311 reuters. (photo credit: Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters)

Having quashed Shi’ite-led protests and preparing to lift martial law in June, Bahrain is pushing full steam ahead to reschedule Formula One auto racing as a high-profile demonstration that life is back to normal. But the human rights violations it wracked up cracking down on unrest may jeopardize the plan.

“If it is up to us, we are ready,” says Zayed Rashed Al-Zayani, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit. “We are happy to have it. We are ready to host it. But unfortunately it’s not our decision alone.”

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As mass protests calling for political reform paralyzed the country in March, Bahrain cancelled the high-profile auto race.  But with the aid of troops from Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf neighbors, Bahrain quashed the demonstrations led by the country’s marginalized Shi’ite majority and imposed martial law

The crackdown continues, with the government accused of destroying Shi’ite mosques, harassing doctors and journalists, and sentencing protesters to death for allegedly killing two policemen by running them over with cars during the riots. Yet as order of a kind was restored, the authorities say they will lift the state of emergency on June 1, even as Saudi troops remain.

“Things are calm now, life is back to normal. We are in a position to have international events once again,” Al-Zayani told Autosport magazine.

When the premier Formula One race was first hosted by Bahrain in 2004, it put the Middle Eastern country strongly on the map of auto racing. Regarded as the world’s highest class of motor sport, more than half a billion people tuned into Formula One races last year making it a huge sporting event across the globe. The Bahraini Grand Prix was to have opened the season. Now the country is hoping to salvage it by holding the event in late October.

“For the Bahraini government, it would have been very important to keep the focus on Bahrain, not only from a motor sport perspective, but from a tourism point of view. This is why it is very important for the Bahrainis to have the race,” Mohamed Sheta, editor of Auto Arabia Media Group, the largest motorsport media group in the Middle East, told The Media Line. 

The general assembly of International Automobile Federation (FIA) is set to meet on June 3 and decide whether Bahrain can host a Formula One event this year.

Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s chief executive officer, was quoted by the BBC earlier this month as saying Bahrain could still be slotted into this year’s race calendar in October or November.

“We are having a look at it. Everything is possible,” Ecclestone said. “I'm not sure at the moment what I'm going to do. Everything's up in the air.”

Pro-democracy activists have written an open letter to Ecclestone urging him not to reschedule the Bahrain Grand Prix until the government ends its crackdown. 

“We are asking you to consider the challenges to organize what should be a happy sporting event in the middle of a country under siege and martial law, surrounded by tanks and military forces,” a group calling itself “The Youth of Feb. 14 Revolution” says on its Facebook site.

“We're asking you reconsider hosting Grand Prix of Bahrain until basic human rights and freedoms are restored. The fact that organizing a motorsport festival in the middle of a despotic crackdown on the population, wouldn't be well understood and accepted worldwide.”

Meanwhile, the organizers of the Grand Prix in Bahrain launched a national campaign over the weekend to get motor sport enthusiasts to sign a book in support of bringing the races back to the country. It hopes to receive many more signatures when it is brought to a loyalty festival opening on Monday.

Bahrain was the only Arab country to host a Formula One World Championship (FOM) race until 2009, when Abu Dhabi succeeded in bringing the event to the United Arab Emirates. Another Gulf emirate, Qatar, too, says it wants to host the Formula One as part of a strategy to draw more sports to the emirate. That would complement its successful bid to host football’s World Cup in 2022, currently under question over bribery charges.

“They are very engaged in attracting as many motor sports and events as possible,” Sheta of Auto Arabia says.

Sheta says hosting Formula One races was as much a financial decision as it was one based on national pride.

“For the country it is something of national pride, but for the car companies and the racing teams and the FOM and Bernie Ecclestone it is a matter of marketing and pure money,” Sheta says. “So the more money you have in a country the more interesting it is for the racing teams and their car companies to go there and the richer a country is the more money they can pay to Bernie Ecclestone to get the race so it is purely a money thing.”

Sheta warns that money notwithstanding, the political turmoil was having a negative impact on the willingness of racing teams to come to the Middle East.

Indeed, Eric Boullier, the head of the Renault team, has expressed hesitation at returning to Bahrain.

“If security is guaranteed, if the foreign ministries in England allow us to travel there, if my guys are happy and if there is a race happening there, we will be happy to race there," Boullier told Reuters.

"But the next question would be in the political context: Do we have to race there? That is another subject. I don't really want to enter into that debate. But the question has to be raised. Does F1 have to go there? It is maybe too early to go there after the dramas."


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