Motor race draws world gaze to Bahrain, Arab Spring's forgotten corner

Mon Apr 15, 2013 2:52am EDT
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By Yara Bayoumy

MANAMA (Reuters) - On the wall of a home in the Bahraini village of al-Aali, 20-year-old Hassan peered through a black balaclava to admire his latest artwork: a circle around the phrase F1 crossed out in red spray paint.

The sentiment is shared by many Bahraini Shi'ites - the majority in this Sunni-ruled kingdom - who say the Formula One Grand Prix race Bahrain will host April 19-21 should be canceled, as it was in 2011 when authorities crushed pro-democracy protests inspired by the 'Arab Spring'. Two years on daily clashes still erupt, largely unnoticed outside the region.

The race will once again draw international attention to Bahrain. The 2012 meeting was accompanied by nightly skirmishes between protesters and security forces. This year, says Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, the signs are that tensions in the kingdom have eased and the risk of protests has diminished. That's a view opposition activists reject.

"Of course we're against it," said Amani Ali, a 22-year-old university student dressed in the black garb typical of conservative Shi'ite women, standing a few meters from Hassan at the first of a series of opposition-organized marches.

"The race brings money to the regime, which they use to buy weapons and attack us.

Many of the companies who help to finance Formula One are limiting their sponsorship involvement, although the firms, including Vodafone and Diageo, say the reasons are operational, not political. Formula One makes most of its money from hosting fees paid by race venues and from television rights. Bahrain pays an estimated $40 million annually to be part of the 19-race calendar.

Home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has faced unrest since pro-democracy protests broke out in February 2011, pitting a Shi'ite-dominated opposition against the minority Sunni-led government, led by the Al Khalifa family.

The protest was crushed, dozens of people were killed and authorities razed "Pearl Square" where mostly Shi'ite demonstrators camped out in central Manama in 2011.   Continued...

Vehicles travel past a large Bahrain Formula One advertising billboard on main highway leading to Bahrain Internaitonal Circuit, in Manama April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed