A Race Against Freedom?
Protesters demonstrate against a famous auto race in the Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain
PHOTO: Since 2011, Bahrain has experienced mass protests, with demands for a fairer and more democratic government. (Hasan Jamali / AP Images)
MAP: The Bahrain Grand Prix began in 2004 and takes place at the Bahrain International Circuit in the region of Sakhir. (Jim McMahon)
For many racing fans, a day at the track is a time to check out cool cars and watch their favorite drivers put the pedal to the metal. But in Bahrain, an upcoming Formula 1 race has reminded some citizens of their country’s limited freedom.
Formula 1 races are famous car races. Drivers participate in a number of Grand Prix races worldwide. Bahrain has hosted an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix race at the Bahrain International Circuit in the region of Sakhir since 2004.
Each racing event draws the attention of international fans and viewers. But in 2011, officials canceled the race because of widespread protests against the Bahraini government.
Protesters in Bahrain argue that the Formula 1 race hides Bahrain’s problems from the rest of the world. They say that the race legitimizes the current government, or makes it seem as if the government has its people’s approval.
“The Formula 1 is used by the [government] to advertise that there is nothing wrong in Bahrain,” Abdelwahid al-Nadhkhadha, a Bahraini citizen, tells Reuters. “[But] we are showing the world that we are people with demands.” Above all, the protesters demand a more democratic government.
A COUNTRY IN TURMOIL
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa rules the small Middle Eastern country of about 1.3 million people with almost absolute authority. Though citizens elect some political leaders, King Hamad personally selects most government officials.
The majority of people in Bahrain identify themselves as Shiite Muslims. But the King and most other leaders are part of the minority Sunni Muslim group.
Protests against the current regime (government leadership) have rocked Bahrain since 2011. In that year, people in Middle Eastern countries began demanding democratic changes to their governments—in a democratic government, citizens vote to elect government officials. This movement was known as the Arab Spring. Leaders in several nations, like Egypt and Tunisia, stepped down because of passionate protests.
Protesters in Bahrain asked the government to take steps toward democracy. They called for more opportunities for Shiites, who don’t have the same opportunities as Sunnis in Bahrain. Demonstrators also wanted more political freedoms, such as freedom of speech.
Bahrain’s government immediately cracked down on the protests. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds. They imprisoned and reportedly often mistreated protesters. At least 35 civilians have died as a result of the government’s response.
A FORMULA FOR TROUBLE?
Despite massive protests last year, Bahrain hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix. But many human rights supporters are calling on Bahrain to cancel this year’s race. Members of the British Parliament even sent a letter to Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone asking him to call off the competition.
So far, officials plan to move forward with the Grand Prix. It will take place from April 19 to April 21. The Bahraini government has even increased security to make sure demonstrators do not disrupt the event.
But protesters show no signs of slowing down. One female protester tells Reuters, “As long as there are oppression, arrests, and killings, there should not be a Formula 1.”