Bahrain’s crown prince admitted Saturday that there were “issues” affecting the kingdom on the eve of a Formula One Grand Prix that has been dogged by sometimes bloody clashes between police and democracy activists.
But Prince Salman, who has long been regarded as a moderate voice within the Gulf state’s Sunni minority regime, said he was “optimistic” a settlement could be reached with the Shiite-led opposition.
“I’m optimistic that a solution will be found here,” the prince told reporters at the desert Sakhir circuit, south of the capital Manama, as qualification for Sunday’s race passed off without incident.
Police were out in force for qualifying, with armoured vehicles deployed around the capital’s Pearl Square, epicentre of month-long pro-democracy protests in early 2011 that were crushed with deadly force.
Hundreds of Shiite demonstrators who attempted to gather in the square on Saturday evening were forcibly dispersed, witnesses said.
Police fired tear gas and chased demonstrators into side streets. Some protesters retaliated with petrol bombs, the witnesses added.
Hundreds had taken to the streets in Shiite villages outside Manama overnight, prompting clashes with police, but away from the circuit, witnesses said.
“Your race is a crime,” chanted protesters armed with petrol bombs and stones. “No, no to blood Formula.”
Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
Prince Salman acknowledged that demonstrators protesting against the race had largely refrained from violence.
“I think they were largely peaceful — people expressing their rights to disagree,” Salman said.
“That’s the kind of thing that we want to support but what we don’t want to support are the violent extremists and very little distinction has been made between the two.”
The 2011 crackdown with the backing of Arab troops led by neighbouring Saudi Arabia prompted cancellation of that year’s Bahrain Grand Prix but the event was controversially restored to the Formula One calendar last year.
Opposition supporters have campaigned for the race to be cancelled, calling it a “crime”.
But Prince Salman denied that the event was being exploited to boost the image and economy of the tiny Gulf monarchy that has a Shiite Muslim majority but is ruled by a Sunni dynasty and has been rocked by continuing Arab Spring-inspired unrest.
“We’ve never used this race to say that everything’s fine,” Prince Salman said. “We recognise there are issues in the country but they are to be solved in a political process which is well underway.”
World motorsport’s governing body the FIA and promoters Formula One Management said Sunday’s race would take place despite the demonstrations.
“The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile and Formula One Management wish to jointly confirm their belief that the Bahrain GP should go ahead this weekend, following assurances from the local promoter and the authorities that security, their responsibility, will be guaranteed for all participants,” a statement read.
German Nico Rosberg will start in pole on Sunday after clocking a best time of one minute and 32.330 seconds in the final Q3 segment of the qualifying hour for his Mercedes team.
He outpaced Germany’s three-time defending world champion and championship leader Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull by two-tenths of a second. Spain’s two-time world champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was third fastest.