Pro-democracy groups are using the race to draw international attention to their demands. Elizabeth Dickinson reports
Bahrain assures safety of F1 teams and fans during Grand Prix
Formula One and international racing officials said yesterday they had been assured by Bahraini authorities that measures had been taken to ensure the safety of competitors and spectators at this weekend's Grand Prix.
The announcement by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (Fia) and Formula One management (Fom) came as practice sessions at the Sakhir race circuit got under way, and opponents and critics of the Bahraini government marched in the capital 30 kilometres away to highlight their pro-reform demands.
The two organisations said they had received assurances from Bahraini authorities that security "will be guaranteed for all participants".
"The FIA and FOM also strongly believe that sport can often be a force for good and that the staging of the Grand Prix in Bahrain will come some way in helping soothe some of the issues which have been raised in the media," the statement added.
In calling for demonstrations, the largest opposition bloc, the Shiite group Al Wefaq, said they were intended to "reflect popular demands for a transition towards a true democracy".
Thousands of protestors joined a march yesterday afternoon on Budaiya motorway, which is the primary route to many Shiite villages.
Controversy has swirled around the F1 race since early 2011, when pro-reform demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring drew hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis to the capital's city centre. Security concerns forced the cancellation of that year's race, but the annual event resumed last year.
This year, security forces have largely confined demonstrators to their villages, preventing them from rallying in central Manama, an opposition member said. "It's been impossible to get to the capital," said Ala'a Shehabi.
Bahrain's government has argued that one motivation for restarting the race is the country's economy, which suffered heavy losses after the unrest in 2011. The tourism sector in particular was heavily hit as hotels went unoccupied and visitors cancelled their trips.
On Thursday, the Bahrain state news agency said that hotel and tourism operators had reported "that the occupancy rates of the majority of hotels and hospitality institutions have reached their highest", because of the race.
"Formula One has placed Bahrain on [the] world map, and made it an attraction destination on the occasion of the global event, which has economic returns for Bahrain," the state news agency quoted Mubarak bin Ahmed Al Fadel, governor of Bahrain's central governorate, as saying.
There was no consensus among government opponents over whether this year's race should be held.
Some say the festive mood of race weekend trivialises the political and human-rights problems Bahrain faces, while others say it is an opportunity to call attention to those problems at a time when outsiders flood the island and international attention is focused on it.
While Al Wefaq did not urge its cancellation, a youth coalition calling itself February 14 lit tires and blocked roads across Manama and outlying Shiite villages yesterday, saying on its Facebook page that the protests illustrated a "popular rejection" of the event.
With so many journalists covering the race, "they will see what's happening in Bahrain", said Ali, a 30-year-old opposition supporter and former employee of the Sakhir circuit. He said he was sacked at the height of the unrest in 2011 and, unlike many other workers, has not been rehired.
"But in another way, the government here wants to show that nothing is happening in Bahrain," he said.
"So for me, I can't approve of the race this year."