Manama - Formula One cars took to the track in Bahrain on
Friday, with the government hoping for a successful Grand Prix, while activists
are promising to mark it with "days of rage" after more than a year
of Arab Spring protests.
On the eve of Friday's practice session, which began at
about 07:00 GMT, protests had flared in villages surrounding the capital, far
from the circuit where the race will be held.
Police fired teargas and stun
grenades to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have been building in the
week leading to Sunday's round of the World Championship.
Bahrain has been in turmoil since a democracy movement
erupted last year, following uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
initially crushed with the loss of dozens of lives, but youths still clash
daily with riot police in Shi'ite Muslim districts, and thousands take part in
Two members of the British-based Force India team,
travelling between Bahrain International Circuit and their hotel in Manama,
asked to go home after seeing burning petrol bombs in what the government
described as an isolated incident.
"A number of rioters and vandals had been arrested for
taking part in illegal rallies and gatherings, blocking roads and endangering
people's lives by attacking them with petrol bombs, iron rods and stones,"
the Information Affairs Authority said in a statement, citing Major-General
Tariq Al Hassan.
However, activists accused the kingdom's rulers of using the
motor race to improve their international image.
While sports correspondents poured into Bahrain this week to
cover the race, non-sports reporters from Reuters and some other news
organisations have not been granted visas to visit the Gulf island.
"Formula One in Bahrain has been taken as PR for the
ruling elite, the repressive dictators who are ruling the country,"
activist Nabeel Rajab told a news conference.
Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family, a Sunni Muslim dynasty
ruling a majority Shi'ite population caught between neighbours Saudi Arabia and
Iran with opposite sympathies in its internal strife, hopes the race will offer
an opportunity to tell the world that life is returning to normal.
However, Western companies are opting not to entertain clients
and partners following calls for sponsors to boycott the event. Shell, which
sponsors the Ferrari team, will not be hosting any guests at the event, a
source familiar with the company's plans said.
"The Bahraini government wants to bask in the positive
international publicity it anticipates receiving through the Formula One motor
race going ahead," said Kirsty Hughes of Index on Censorship. "Yet
all the signs are that the government is likely to intensify its harsh
clampdown on local activists before and during the Grand Prix."
"A lot of hype"
Unrest forced the cancellation of last year's Grand Prix,
and the 2012 race has been in doubt as Bahrain's human rights record has come
under fire from abroad.
Red Bull's double world champion Sebastian Vettel played
down the trouble. "I haven't seen anyone throwing bombs. I don't think
it's that bad. I think it's a lot of hype."
Several hundred demonstrators tried to stage protests in the
capital, Manama, on Thursday. Police broke up the protesters, who are vowing to
intensify their actions over the three-day race meeting.
However, it was not clear if Wefaq, the leading Shi'ite
opposition party, would organise large rallies, as this could open it to
government accusations of acting against the nation's interest. Wefaq has said
it is not against staging the race.
Manama is under tight security, with police stationed on
bridges linking the capital to the rest of the country and the Bahrain
International Circuit in Sakhir.
Though life in Manama's main commercial, residential and
tourist districts appears detached from the nightly battles, tear gas often
floats over from conflict zones pocketed around the capital.
The death toll from the year of turmoil has risen to around
70, activists say, with many due to heavy use of tear gas. The government
disputes the causes of death and accuses protesters in Shi'ite villages of
being saboteurs out to harm the police.
Activists say the government has tightened its security grip
over the past week in an effort to keep Shi'ites in their villages and stop
them gathering on main highways when the international media glare is on the
Rights activists and medics say around 95 protest organisers
have been arrested in night raids in the past week and 54 people wounded in clashes.
Police have declined to give figures on arrests and injuries.
The Bahrain government must also decide what to do about a
jailed Shi'ite rights activist who has been on hunger strike for more than 70
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is one of 14 men in prison for leading
the uprising last year. Releasing him would involve a loss of face for the
government, but his death would create a martyr.
"He is a pain in the neck for them, but they don't want
him to die also, that's why they have taken him to their best hospital, in the
royal wing," his wife Khadija al-Mousawi said in an interview, wiping away
Large sums of money are at stake this weekend. Last year,
Bahrain paid a "hosting fee" of $40m despite cancelling the race. The
Grand Prix drew 100 000 visitors to the nation of just 1.3 million and
generated half a billion dollars in spending when it was last held two years
A group of British lawmakers warned Formula One sponsors
that they risked damaging their brands by supporting the Bahrain Grand Prix and
said the race should have been called off.
Bahrain's turmoil has a regional dimension. Sunni Saudi
Arabia sent troops to back the government's crackdown last year, while media in
Shi'ite Iran have taken up the cause of the cause of the opposition.
Bahrain is the base for the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, among
whose tasks is deterring Iran from making good on recent threats to disrupt
Gulf oil tanker routes to the West.
Washington has only gently prodded Bahrain's rulers to
improve their human rights record and push forward political reforms, and does
not want to jeopardise ties with a ruling family it views as an ally in the
The opposition parties, led by Wefaq, want the elected
parliament to have full powers to legislate and form cabinets, reducing the
domination of the Al Khalifa family.
The government has increased parliament's powers of
oversight but refused to budge on the bigger issues, amid what analysts see as
a dispute among different wings of the ruling family over how to proceed.