x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

F1 race not a political diversion, says Bahrain’s crown prince

Prince Salman rebuffs accusations from the opposition and says issues in the country are being 'solved through a political process'. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa speaks to the driver Felipe Massa after the qualifying session for the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit on Saturday. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa speaks to the driver Felipe Massa after the qualifying session for the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit on Saturday. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

A third day of clashes between protesters and security forces in Bahrain that sent two people to hospital marked the final qualifiers ahead of the kingdom's Formula One Grand Prixtoday.

Bahrain's Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, yesterday denied activists' claims that the government was using the event to hide human rights abuses and political problems.

"We've never used this race to say that everything's fine. We recognise there are issues in the country, but they are to be solved through a political process, which is well under way," he said.

The crown prince, a driving force behind reconciliation talks between government and opposition, said he was hopeful that the dialogue could resolve a two-year-old political crisis

"They're happening - that's the important thing. And all sides get a chance to air their grievances, and that's very key," he said in rare comments to reporters.

Opposition protests have continued despite the National Dialogue and were stepped up in the run-up to the Grand Prix.

The ministry of interior said yesterday that two expatriates had been injured by Molotov cocktails thrown during the protests overnight.

Youth demonstrators blocked roads and burnt tyres in more than a dozen Shiite villages on Friday night and into early Saturday. Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades, witnesses said.

More demonstrations were planned for yesterday evening, including calls from a youth coalition to march on the location where mass protests erupted in 2011. The site of the former Pearl Roundabout, which was torn down in 2011, was heavily guarded yesterday morning.

Bahraini authorities have rejected suggestions that the continuing turmoil would compromise security at the race. The Bahrain International Circuit, where F1 events are being held, sits 30 kilometres from the city centre and has been untouched by the unrest.

Samira Rajab, Bahrain's information minister, said the overnight clashes were "the normal sort" and opposition reports about them sought to inflate their significance.

"They are trying to exaggerate for the media before the Formula One race. They are working very hard to show a bad image of Bahrain," she told Reuters.

Bahrain's Grand Prix was thrust into controversy in 2011, when the race was cancelled amid security concerns. Beginning in February that year, protesters gathered near the city centre calling for reforms and an end to what they said was discrimination against the Shiite population.

A coalition of opposition groups has been keen to take advantage of the media attention on the race to highlight concerns about rights violations and calls for reform.

"The key demands of the people of Bahrain are to enable them to manage the affairs of their country," the Shiite society Al Wefaq, the largest opposition group, said in a statement followoing a march that attracted thousands of supporters on Friday afternoon.

 

edickinson@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press