MANAMA, April 18 (Reuters) - Formula One is a unifying force for Bahrain and local support for the grand prix is ‘overwhelming’ despite continuing unrest in the country, circuit chairman Zayed Alzayani said on Thursday.
Speaking in his office at the Sakhir desert circuit, Alzayani told reporters security arrangements for Sunday’s race were the same as last year and suggested that any protesters who resorted to violence would be guilty of ‘terrorism’.
“We don’t feel there is a direct threat to the track and nor have we received any threats,” he added as teams and drivers arrived to work on cars and carry out media duties. “We don’t feel any extra threat is upon us this year.”
The race was cancelled in 2011, due to an uprising and subsequent bloody crackdown that left at least 35 dead, and last year’s event went ahead after nightly skirmishes between police firing teargas and protesters throwing petrol bombs.
”I am totally against violence. No matter what cause you have, you have no right to disrupt the normal cause of life for others in the country,“ said Alzayani. ”That’s not democracy, that’s terrorism. there’s no two ways about it.
“Whether you do that hiding behind human rights, or political, or religious motivation, it’s wrong.”
Bahrain has arrested several people accused of stealing and burning cars amid tight security in the island kingdom, a strategic state that is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. One car exploded in the financial district last Sunday.
Human Rights Watch said last week that police had arrested 20 opposition activists in towns near the circuit to prevent a repeat of last year’s protests.
Alzayani said a 25,000-strong crowd was expected on Sunday, which would be a bigger turnout than 2010 and 2012.
Watched by millions around the world, the grand prix is Bahrain’s biggest annual sporting event but also the most controversial on the Formula One calendar due to continuing violence and human rights concerns.
Bahrain’s main opposition bloc has called for peaceful demonstrations leading up to the race, but there have been frequent clashes in mainly Shi‘ite villages where F1 visitors rarely venture.
Alzayani defended the controversial slogan of “UniF1ed” used last year to promote the race, which made its debut on the calendar in 2004 as part of a vision to promote Bahrain’s image abroad as a modern banking and tourist hub.
Alzayani said 156 Bahraini marshals - “Men, women, Muslim, Christian and atheist” - had officiated at the 2011 Indian Grand Prix after Bahrain was cancelled and their show of unity had inspired the slogan that critics said had politicised the race.
“After the race, all of them got in four big trucks and drove laps with Bahraini flags on the Indian track. That showed to me the unification...that’s why we came up with ‘UniF1ed’,” said Alzayani.
This year’s slogan is ‘Imagine Your Moment’.
“I don’t think Formula One splits the nation,” said Alzayani, who said only a ‘tiny percentage’ were opposed to the race.
“Those don’t bother us. We cater for the majority and the majority support the race,” he added. “It is the only event in Bahrain today where we have the opposition, the government and the nation all agreeing. I wish we had more events that we could all agree on.”
Critics have accused the government of using the race as a vanity project, incurring hefty losses on hosting fees estimated at around $40 million a year, but Alzayani said it had never been intended to make money.
“The intention of the track was never to be a profit-making organisation as a stand-alone. The intention is mainly to promote Bahrain internationally which I think we have been very successful in doing,” he said.
“The benefits for the economy by far exceed the actual costs of hosting the event. We have to look at BIC (Bahrain International Circuit) as more of an infrastructure/promoting Bahrain venture.”
Alzayani declined to provide any financial figures. The current contract for the race runs to 2016. (Editing by Clare Fallon)