Bahrain rulers to ignore protests, stage F1 race
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) For Bahrain's embattled rulers, the return of the Formula One race is a chance to rebuild their credibility on the world stage amid the longest-running clashes of the Arab Spring.
But Bahrain's all-out push to host the race again Sunday after last year's cancellation also offers lessons into the risks-versus-rewards calculations of the F1's organizers and sponsors.
Despite appeals by rights groups and pressure from protesters, including a jailed activist on a two-month and counting hunger strike, it appears Bahrain's record of providing lucrative returns has taken precedence over any negative public relations fallout.
"Bahrain has been very good to Formula One, so for this reason it's hard to break ties," said Caroline Reid of Formula Money, a London-based independent organization that monitors the F1 industry.
The sport has staged races in South Africa during apartheid and expanded to China despite widespread criticism of the country's human rights record. But last year marked the first time an F1 race was abandoned because of unrest and worries over security.
It was a great victory for the Shiite opposition in Bahrain, which is seeking to break the near monopoly on power by the ruling Sunni dynasty. Nearly 50 people have been killed in violent acts since February 2011, and Bahrain's once-vibrant economy has slumped badly with the flight of foreign companies and workers.
But F1 experts say the turmoil has had little affect on advertisers and broadcasters.
It's still possible that some companies might break ties with F1 teams for racing in Bahrain. But so far there is no evidence that allegations of widespread human rights abuses in the island nation have hurt the sport's huge international TV audience of more than 500 million every year, Reid said.
"It's this exposure which is crucial to F1," Reid said. "Unless the fans start switching off, the sponsors will stay in the sport."
Bahrain was the first Middle Eastern country to welcome F1 in 2004. The ruling Al Khalifa dynasty are huge fans of the sport and the country's sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat, owns 50 percent of leading team McLaren.
"It's no doubt a money maker, the Bahrain Grand Prix, otherwise it would be difficult to explain why (F1 boss) Bernie Ecclestone would be so insistent on returning there," said Sean Ennis, a professor of sports marketing at University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.
Reid said few F1 races make a profit and Bahrain, like most hosts, have used the sport to market their country to the world and associate it with "glamour, high technology and blue chip companies."
The exposure sponsors gain in Bahrain is higher than that at long-standing traditional races such as Monaco, Britain, Germany, Italy and Belgium, according to Reid.
The kingdom's last race two years ago generated broadcast exposure worth $90.4 million to the brands involved in F1. That's 16 percent higher than the $78 million each race averaged on the 2010 calendar, according to Reid, who wrote the group's annual report.
Protesters and human rights groups have argued that going ahead with the race in Bahrain will give international legitimacy to the monarchy and its yearlong crackdown. Hundreds have been detained and tried in secret at a special security court. Dozens have been convicted of anti-state crimes.
Eight prominent opposition figures have been sentenced to life in prison on charges of trying to overthrow the state, including rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on a hunger strike for 10 weeks.
Al-Khawaja has galvanized the Shiite resistance in the lead-up to the Bahrain GP. Protesters carried the activist's picture during recent rallies and chanted anti-F1 slogans, including during a clash Wednesday at a cultural exhibition set up for the F1 weekend.
In the past weeks, much of the protesters' anger has been directed at Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who owns the rights to the Bahrain GP. He is also the commander of the kingdom's armed forces, which the opposition supporters say have been enforcing the crackdown.
Last year, Salman was tasked to lead a national dialogue aimed at reconciliation between Shiite and Sunnis. The talks broke down without any compromise and have not yet resumed.
The rulers have billed the F1 race as an event that will put the divided society on the path of reconciliation. On Tuesday, Salman warned the opposition against sabotaging a racing weekend that will draw a worldwide TV audience of about 100 million in 187 countries.
"This race is more than a mere global sport event and should not be politicized to serve certain goals, which may be detrimental to this international gathering," Salman said.
A day later, dozens of people confronted Salman and chanted against the monarchy after he attended a funeral of a Shiite executive in an opposition stronghold of Sanabis, just outside the capital Manama.
"We have a message for you, Salman," shouted a group of women, who encircled the crown prince, as the men chanted: "The people want the government to fall."
Salman announced the cancellation of last year's race. He said the priority of the country was "overcoming tragedy and healing divisions."
A year later, opposition supporters say the government has done nothing to address their grievances. The crackdown deepened their resolve to protest until they receive more rights and opportunities equal to those of the Sunnis.
"The crown prince has done nothing for the people," said Rabab Ali, a nursery school principal. "Where is he when the army and its mercenaries are killing us?"