x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

F1 chief Ecclestone compares Bahraini civil unrest with anti-Thatcher protests

Bernie Ecclestone has assured protesters in Bahrain that he understands their grievances and is willing to meet opposition figures ahead of this weekend's Formula One race.

MANAMA // Bernie Ecclestone has assured protesters in Bahrain that he understands their grievances and is willing to meet opposition figures ahead of this weekend's Formula One race.

However, in comments that could antagonise rights campaigners and pro-democracy activists, the F1 commercial supremo also compared civil unrest in the country to the protests against yesterday's funeral of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in London.

"I'm happy to talk to anybody about this, as I did before," he said on Tuesday, mentioning that he had met members of the opposition group Al Wefaq last year in London and Bahrain.

"We don't want to see trouble. We don't want to see people arguing and fighting about things we don't understand, because we really don't understand ... Some people feel it's our fault there are problems."

A group of British politicians has written to Mr Ecclestone urging him to cancel the race, which was reinstated to the calendar last year after being called off in 2011.

"We are extremely sympathetic to them," he said. "Don't forget, I was the one, when we had the apartheid in South Africa, who pulled the race."

Formula One personnel and race drivers have begun arriving in Bahrain after the weekend's grand prix in Shanghai, with protests picking up as the fourth race of the season approaches.

Media reported four explosions, including one in Manama's financial centre, on Sunday night with one caused by a gas cylinder placed in a stolen car in the Bahrain Financial Harbour parking area.

A radical opposition group, the Coalition of February 14 Movement, claimed responsibility and warned it would continue similar "operations".

The opposition and government resumed reconciliation talks in February for the first time since 2011, when protests were crushed and at least 35 people died, but little progress has been reported.

"I wish they could sort things out," Mr Ecclestone said. "If there are any problems, which there are obviously - people are not making trouble if there are no problems - then they could get it sorted out.

"I don't think the people who are arguing about their position are bad people, and I don't think they're trying to hurt people to make their point," he said.

"We've had all sorts of protesters - look at those complaining about Mrs Thatcher. This happens all the time. People use these things when there is an opportunity."