Two mechanics from the Force India Formula 1 racing team fled Bahrain today after their colleagues were nearly engulfed by a petrol bomb.
Their decision to leave the troubled Gulf kingdom came as fresh violence broke out last night with police using tear gas and stun grenades to clear sporadic demonstrations in the capital Manama.
The renewed clashes will add to mounting concerns that this Sunday’s Grand Prix will be disrupted by the ongoing civil strife that has engulfed the island state for more than a year.
Determined to quash dissent in the run up the race, Bahrain’s security forces have ratcheted up their confrontations with demonstrators, pre-emptively arresting scores of dissident leaders, banning protests in the capital and even resorting to live ammunition.
Activists circulated a number of unverified pictures showing what they claimed were victims who had been peppered with shotgun pellets throughout clashes on Wednesday evening. Al-Wefaq, the main opposition party for the country’s majority Shi’a population, also released a video showing what they claimed were members of the state security forces beating people with iron bars.
Renewed clashes broke out once more last night with opposition groups vowing to hold daily protests up until Sunday. A photographer from Associated Press reported seeing police fire stun grenades and tear gas at a rally in central Manama in which protestors were demonstrating shouting slogans against Formula 1 coming to Bahrain. New pictures posted by activists last night showed thick blankets of tear gas wafting across the city streets. Another particularly graphic image showed a protestor who had been severely injured after being hit in the face with a tear gas canister.
Bahrain’s Sunni-led monarchy are determined to show the world that their country has turned a path towards reform after more than 50 people were killed in a year of violence which began when the country’s Shi’a majority starting agitating for better representation and democratic reform. However human rights groups have accused the regime of being more concerned with its international image than implementing real reform.
The country’s Shi’a opposition is divided over whether the Grand Prix should go ahead. Al-Wefaq, the main opposition party, says it intends to use the international attention gained from coverage of the race to highlight human rights abuses inside Bahrain with daily protests. But many younger activists, who have often borne the brunt of police brutality, are less conciliatory and believe the race should not be allowed to proceed. There are reports that some have used petrol bombs and iron rods to attack police but opposition groups insist that their protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful.
Formula 1 teams began arriving in Bahrain earlier in the week amid concerns that their security would be put at risk from the violent confrontations. Some have even been advised by their bosses to avoid displaying sponsor logos in public. On Wednesday evening four personnel from the Force India team became the first members of the Formula 1 community to get caught up directly in Bahrain’s political problems.
As clashes broke out between police and demonstrators a Molotov cocktail exploded not far from their hired van. None of the four, who work as mechanics for the Silverstone-based team that run Scottish driver Paul di Resta, were injured but two other unnamed team members decided to return to the UK after the incident. The team nonetheless vowed to press ahead with racing come Sunday.
Though the incident is precisely what critics of the decision to go to the troubled Gulf state had envisaged - the innocent getting caught up in clashes not specifically aimed at them – it was quickly dismissed by Zayed R Alzayani, the chairman of the BIC which will host the race.
“It was an isolated incident, and my wife was involved too,” he said, while confirming that he would not be asking for tighter security controls. “The protestors were not targeting the cars, they just happened to be there. Nobody was injured. I don't command the police; they know what to do better than I do. I have a race to run.”
Racing Away: The Cost Of Missing Out
The muted response to alleged human-rights abuses in Bahrain ahead of the Grand Prix has led to accusations from activists that organisers are motivated purely by money. But how much money is at stake? The answer is: a lot.
The cancellation of last year’s event amid a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests is estimated to have cost the oil-rich nation some £250m in tourism losses alone. In addition, the Formula One Group was allowed to keep the £25m paid by Bahrain to host the event.
Bahrain is a country rich in natural resources, but its economy has taken a hit and has struggled to quell large-scale protests over the past 12 months.
If it were to cancel the event, it would face similar losses again this year.
The Formula One Group stands to make around £289m this year in television rights from its two UK broadcasters, the BBC and BSkyB. The money it will make from sponsors is even higher – estimated to be around £480m.