The Formula One Grand Prix took place in Bahrain Sunday, despite becoming a focal point for internal protests, and attracting international censure. A fresh outbreak of violence was reported in the immediate aftermath of the race.
Local media photographed clashes between authorities and opposition in a traditional opposition haunt straight after the race, with reports of tear gas and rubber bullets being fired at the protesters. The opposition promised three “days of rage” between Friday and Sunday.
In the race itself, Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel was first to pass the checkered flag.
On Saturday an estimated 7,000 protestors clashed with police around the capital Manama, which has been forced into lockdown mode. The crowd threw Molotov cocktails, while police used tear gas and batons.
Although the well-publicized race was long expected to become a flashpoint for conflict, tension was raised further overnight when the opposition claimed police had beaten one of their activists to death before secretively dumping his body.
Bahrain has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family for two centuries, but ever since protests broke out across the Arab world last year, the opposition has been demanding democratic reform. The issue is complicated by ethnic divisions: the ruling family are Sunni Muslims, while 70 per cent of the population are Shiites, a rival Muslim denomination.
More than 50 people are believed to have died during the year-long stand-off. However, Western countries which have showed support for regime change across the Arab world are ignoring events in Bahrain. Middle East expert Tariq Ali believes the West is not interested in political change in the kingdom as long as it serves its interests. “This shows up a blatant hypocrisy in relation to human rights and the use of the human rights mask to get their own way,” he told RT.
Thanks to its Sunni rulers Bahrain has become a “naval base” of the United States which stations its Fifth Fleet there. “The fact that all of this is going on in their backyard doesn’t bother them in the slightest,” Ali said.
The ruling family insisted the race take place despite international reservations, presumably in the hope of showing newfound stability after the cancelation of last year's event. The government has made several constitutional concessions to the opposition in the past year, although international human rights group Amnesty International has called them “inadequate.”
Even as battles broke out on the streets, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa spoke of “reform and reconciliation.”
Instead, the Grand Prix has drawn widespread attention to the protesters' cause.
The United Kingdom's ruling Conservative Party expressed “concern” at the violence, but stopped short of calling for a boycott. The opposition condemned the event outright.
The F1 drivers themselves have predominantly decided to steer clear of politics. Reigning world champion Vettel said he would be focusing on "stuff that really matters – tire temperatures, cars."
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone – who had the power to cancel the race – went one step further, branding media attention towards the protests “a lot of nonsense.”
Hours before the event, police surrounded the racetrack, less than 30km from the demonstrations, with multiple checkpoints and security forces in tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Despite heavy ticket discounting, the grandstand stood half-empty as the cars set off around the track.