F1: 'No Formula One over our blood' cry protesters ahead of weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix 2012
THEY poured past in their thousands: men of all ages, chattering children, women dressed head to toe in black abayas, many of them holding placards, all of them chanting slogans. You did not need to be able to speak Arabic to get the gist of what they were saying: "Down with King Hamad" mostly. That and: "No Formula One in Bahrain."
Every so often a protester would peel off from the crowd and shake the hands of visiting journalists, thanking us for being there in person and imploring us to help them get their message out.
We had been told to see with our own eyes what the situation was in Bahrain. So there we were; at a protest march in Al Dair, a small Shi’ite village north east of Manama, near the airport. It was the largest of several such protests yesterday.
This was the acceptable face of the opposition. While tear gas was used to disperse protesters armed with Molotov cocktails during Monday’s march in Salmabad, yesterday’s in Al Dair was peaceful, almost joyful.
But there was an edge. Rubber bullets, remnants from previous clashes, lay scattered about. A 13-year-old girl, Reem, whose father was killed in police custody last year – allegedly beaten to death – came up to introduce herself. She was with her uncle, a politician in Bahrain’s main opposition party, Al Wefaq, which has called for seven days of protest to capitalise on the presence of F1.
Our guide for the day, Dr Ala’a Shehabi, an activist who met with F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone in London earlier this year in an effort to have the race cancelled, told us about some of the other faces in the crowd; a nurse, Rola Alsaffar, who was allegedly beaten by police last spring after helping to treat injured protesters; a doctor, Huda Alawi, whose husband is a prominent local lawyer representing hundreds of protesters in jail.
With the grand prix coming up this weekend, she told us, many activists had been rounded up in the past few days. One of her colleagues, a 19-year-old student, told us he had slept in three different houses over the past three nights after the police had come looking for him.
In Al Dair, the police kept their distance and everyone headed off after an hour or so to answer the call for evening prayer.
One man, who was wearing a red Ferrari polo shirt, approached us. “I love F1,” he said. “But not over our blood. They are forcing it on us.”
I had heard much the same thing from my taxi driver after landing in Bahrain yesterday. On our way into town, which, as we were assured it would be by Bahrain’s authorities, was ghostlike, he gave me his thoughts on Sunday’s race. “I have two emotions,” he said. “One is that I am proud to have such a big event in Bahrain. But the other part of me feels shame. You will be welcome here because you are guests in my country but you will be racing over blood this weekend.”
Asked if the race was not vital to the economy, he insisted that the average Bahraini would see little of the $400-500?million which the Bahrain GP organisers estimate it generates. “The government and their supporters own all these buildings,” he said, sweeping his hand in a wide arc to indicate the smart hotels of the diplomatic quarter.
These views are not necessarily representative of the majority of Bahrainis, merely the ones I spoke to yesterday.
During the day I also received plenty of messages of support for the grand prix, mostly via Twitter, as well as exhortations to speak to others with a different agenda.
“I hope u will also talk 2 decent law abiding ppl in Bahrain whose health safety & livelihoods r ruined by terror acts,” said Betsy Mathieson, a Scots-born activist living in Bahrain. “Decent hard working Shias r trapped in their villages by rioting thugs what bout their HR?”
Some described the clashes to me as sectarian, others that they are between Bahrain's haves and have-nots, which happens to be broadly separated along sectarian lines.
It all served to illustrate what a complex and sensitive situation it is out here; and how the race is being used by both sides as a political tool.
Back in Al Dair, the man in the Ferrari shirt invited us to his house for supper but we declined, heading instead to Diraz, a village west of Manama where a group of 100 or so youths had organised a march. We watched from a nearby rooftop as explosions lit up the night sky. Reports reached us of larger-scale clashes in Sitra, and a car bomb in Manama itself.
Bahrain’s authorities have been at pains to reassure the F1 community that safety will not be an issue this week. Given the enormous security presence at the circuit, it is unlikely to be. But that has not entirely dispelled misgivings within F1’s 1,500-strong travelling army, who are marching into a highly politicised event.
The FIA and Ecclestone insist the race has nothing to do with politics. Countless posters about town bearing the slogan ‘UniF1ed: One Nation in Celebration’ suggest otherwise.
Human rights groups say reforms promised by Bahrain’s rulers in the wake of last autumn’s damning independent report amount to window dressing. Our 19-year-old guide was of the same opinion. “There is still torture, still discrimination,” he said. “Everything we fought for on Feb 14 last year. It’s still just the same.”