Despite Protests, Bahrain Hosts Grand Prix Race
A year after an uprising threatened Bahrain's monarchy, the royal family is hosting a Formula One Grand Prix race this Sunday as it attempts to show life has returned to normal.
But racing fans will have to make their way through ranks of police and soldiers who are part of a heavy security presence. And riot police have been using tear gas, stun grenades and birdshot to hold back demonstrations around the capital city, Manama.
Practice sessions went ahead as planned Friday, with a dozen Formula One teams entered in the race. Last year's event was canceled amid protests and violence that went on for months, left several dozen dead and included widespread arrests. Those protests were violently put down by Bahrain's security forces, backed by Saudi Arabian troops.
Crown Prince Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa said it would be a mistake to call off the race this year.
"I think canceling the race just empowers extremists," he told reporters.
The kingdom is a strategically located island in the Persian Gulf, connected by a causeway to the Saudi Arabian mainland. Bahrain also hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
The size and intensity of Bahrain's protests may have diminished compared with last year, but they remain regular events.
"The new normal is that people are protesting every night," says Joe Stork, a Middle East expert at Human Rights Watch.
Shiite Muslims Claim Discrimination
Bahrain's Shiite Muslims make up a solid majority in the country but say they face systematic discrimination from the Sunni Muslim establishment.
The opposition is demanding the release of hundreds of people still in prison on protest-related charges. More than 1,500 have been arrested since the start of anti-government demonstrations in February of last year.
Stork says the situation is deteriorating again. "We've already seen things getting more violent," he said.
He says the Obama administration should push harder for the implementation of recommendations made by a commission that investigated the unrest and the government's response.
The commission was chosen by Bahrain's leaders, including King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The commission was led by Cherif Bassiouni, a United Nations war crimes expert from Egypt, who produced the report.
It accused the Bahraini security forces of using "unnecessary and excessive force" against protesters, torturing detainees, committing unlawful killings and denying fair trials to those arrested.
The International Crisis Group says that although Bahrain's government implemented some of Bassiouni's suggestions, it did so selectively, ignoring key recommendations, such as releasing political prisoners and holding officials responsible for repressive behavior.
A recent ICG report says "beneath a facade of normalization, Bahrain is sliding toward another dangerous eruption of violence."
The report cites nightly clashes between young protesters and security forces, with the demonstrators wielding gasoline bombs and the police responding with tear gas.
The chief executive of Formula One, British billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, says the controversy surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix is being whipped up by the media.
"You guys love it," Ecclestone told reporters Friday. "What we really need is an earthquake or something like that now so you can write about that."
The Bahrain Grand Prix is the fourth event this season for Formula One, a hugely profitable glamour sport that lures celebrities, socialites and other wealthy fans to follow a yearly circuit of races from Australia to Brazil.
Bahrain's royal family owns a stake in Formula One racing, including part of the McLaren Group racing team.
The Formula One controversy has drawn renewed attention to another potential flashpoint: Protesters are demanding the release of Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who has been on a hunger strike since Feb. 8.
Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group points out one more complication in the Formula One controversy.
He says Crown Prince Salman has built up the Formula One race in Bahrain as part of an economic power base designed to counter his hard-line rivals.
The U.S.-educated crown prince is widely regarded as one of the more moderate members of his family.
"As a conflict-prevention organization, we think it is unwise to hold the event," says Hiltermann. "But we also recognize that this is a very complex situation, and that the cancellation of the Grand Prix could undermine the crown prince, who we want to support."