I am currently in the media centre at the Bahrain International Circuit, and as such I thought I would give you guys an update on the situation here in Bahrain, as it seems to be the top news story on most international news channels this morning.
We arrived in Bahrain last night, and the airport was relatively quiet. Despite this, I and about five of my colleagues had our passports taken away with no explanation. After a 15 minute wait, our passports were returned, again with no real explanation as to where they had been taken or what had been done with them other than that it was part of new procedure. How this will work over the Grand Prix weekend when the airport is set to become far busier and with a sudden and vast influx of international media remains to be seen.
Police presence, at least in terms of officers in uniform, was no greater than usual at the airport but outside the terminal the number of blue flashing lights on every roundabout was noticeable. We emerged in the middle of a pro-government, pro-King demonstration, with traffic jams all the way into Manama. People were waving the national flag and carrying pictures of the King.
There were no issues getting to our hotel or checking in. However the roads, which are usually busy, were noticeably quiet. We were told to avoid Pearl Roundabout and the Sukhs, and to stay in the hotel, but I took a 5 minute walk around the corner to grab a kebab and I found no trouble and everyone was in a very friendly mood.
Today we could not take the normal route in to the circuit as the main motorway out of Manama and down to Sakhir includes a flyover which crosses Pearl Roundabout where the main demonstration is taking place. News reports overnight suggest that the demonstrators were moved on from the Roundabout last night, with two further people reported shot dead. This roundabout has many hotels around it, some of which are used by F1 teams and media on race weekend.
There was a heavy traffic jam going into Manama as cars were turned off the motorway, and by the side of the road we noticed at least 30 tanks and various other military vehicles pounding over the sand, moving towards Manama. I have just seen that Reuters is reporting 50 armoured vehicles are moving into Manama, and I would agree with this estimation. “Armoured vehicles” however, seems something of an understatement. They are tanks.
At the track itself there are rumours that today’s GP2 Asia practice and qualifying sessions may not take place as medical crews may have to stay in Manama and without their presence at the circuit, no running can take place. I will keep you updated as to how this situation develops. For the moment the internet is working fine, but the guys at the track have warned us that the web is intermittent all across the country.
The general feeling from those I have spoken to at the track today is that these demonstrations are something of an inconvenience. Those I have spoken to today seem to be pro the ruling family and government, and told me that, in their minds, these demonstrations are nothing new but have taken a greater significance in the eyes of the international media due to recent events in Tunisia and Egypt. The BBC is reporting that the demonstrators are seeking:
• political prisoners to be released
• more jobs and housing
• the creation of a more representative and empowered parliament
• a new constitution written by the people
• a new cabinet that does not include Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in office for 40 years
The King has reportedly handed out 20,000 new homes recently in a bid to appease those who are demonstrating for a better quality of life. February 14th marked the 10th anniversary of Bahrain’s new constitution.
There remains an underlying tension in the country however and one can feel it keenly. Recent pushes towards greater democracy in the Middle East appear to have given the people a voice they perhaps felt they did not have before. Whether in the majority or minority, this is a voice they now want to be heard. Speaking to another local last night, he told me that all the people really want is to have a Prime Minister who is not a member of the King’s family. Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa has been Prime Minister of Bahrain for 40 years.
Naturally we are watching how events unfold, and while as of yet there is no real feeling of fear from our side, the underlying tensions make the atmosphere here quite unsettling.
UPDATE: 11:20 LOCAL TIME – All track running has been cancelled today as the medical crews usually present at the track are on stand by in Manama’s hospitals in case the situation at Pearl Roundabout escalates. Practice / Qualifying will take place tomorrow morning with the race in the afternoon…