Formula One's return to Bahrain meets mixed response

Story highlights

  • Formula One returns to Bahrain amid anti-government protests
  • FIA president Jean Todt says the sport's return to Bahrain can have a "healing effect"
  • Some protesters say the race is a chance to raise awareness of the country's political plight
  • Other human rights groups have called for the race to be canceled

Formula One has returned to Bahrain amid conflicting views about the sport's place in a country where political tensions are running high.

The head of the sport's governing body the FIA, Jean Todt, insists the sport coming to Bahrain can be a force for good.

But that view is not shared by anti-government protesters, who recently staged a drum march in the village outside Bahrain's capital Manama to urge F1 not to come under the current circumstances.

Many issues in the kingdom remain unresolved after an uprising in 2011 where the majority Shiite population demanded more rights from the rulers who belong to the minority Sunni sect.

Those protests were violently crushed by Bahrain's security forces with troops from Saudi Arabia coming in to support the government.

In the aftermath of the protests the government promised reform including a special unit set up to investigate claims of rights abuses but critics say little has changed, so the opposition continues to do battle.

The former team principal of F1's famous Ferrari marque, Todt is not attending the Bahrain Grand Prix, though officials have played down the significance of his absence, with a spokesman reportedly sayng the event was never on his schedule.

Todt recently drew criticism, accused of failing to voice his views on why F1 is continuing to race in the volatile Gulf Kingdom.

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In 2011 the race was canceled because of ongoing civil unrest but was reinstated last season.

2012: A revolution deferred in Bahrain
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The FIA president went some way to addressing that criticism this week by sending a letter to an umbrella group of human rights activists in Bahrain.

In the letter, seen by news agency Reuters, Todt explained: "Sport, and the F1 Grand Prix, can have a positive and healing effect in situation where conflict, social unrest and tensions are causing distress."

Protesters view the Bahrain GP as a rare opportunity to raise awareness of the country's political situation for a global audience.

"The media doesn't cover the demonstrations like this revolution which is part of the Arab Spring," Sayed Yousif Al-Mahfdah from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told CNN.

"This is why we tell them come over to the Formula One race and come see the women and the men marching in the streets demanding democracy and human rights."

Bahrain maintains that has worked to resolve political differences, and the government argues the race will bring benefits to many Bahrainis.

"F1 brings significant benefits to everyone in Bahrain, especially economically," the government said in a statement.

"Bahrain upholds the right to peaceful protest. It is a country made up of many communities with different views on its development.

"This is why it has launched a dialogue between all political groups to address political issues in a manner that will ensure the country develops in a sustainable way.

"It should be noted that in some cases protests encouraged by extreme opposition groups result in deliberate and targeted violence.

"Only in these case do security forces respond and they do so while exercising appropriate restraint. Some unfortunately believe that continued unrest on the streets affords them a political advantage, when it results in greater divisions between communities in Bahrain. Violence can never be tolerated."

However, a number of leading human rights organizations argue the sport provides credibility to a government accused of human rights abuses.

Read more: Is Bahrain serious about reform?

"Many people in Bahrain no longer see Formula One as a sport, but as an organization which supports a repressive regime," said a protest group comprised of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the Bahrain Press Association, the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

This week a group British MPs wrote letter to F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone urging him to call off the grand prix.

Ecclestone has voiced sympathy for the protesters but the race is still scheduled to go ahead.

When F1 returned to Bahrain in 2012, the race weekend was undisturbed although two members of the Force India team returned to the UK after being caught up in petrol bomb attacks on their journey from the Sakhir circuit.