Bahrain clashes threaten to disrupt Grand Prix

Bahrain had hoped Sunday's Formula One Grand Prix race would show the world life had returned to normal in the tiny kingdom. Anti-government protests forced last year's race to be cancelled. But as CBS New correspondent Mark Phillips reports, the death of a demonstrator and new clashes mean this year's events are not going as planned.
CBS News

(CBS News) LONDON - Bahrain had hoped Sunday's Formula One Grand Prix race would show the world life had returned to normal in the tiny kingdom. Anti-government protests forced last year's race to be cancelled. But as CBS New correspondent Mark Phillips reports, the death of a demonstrator and new clashes mean this year's events are not going as planned.

This is the type of road action the organizers of the Bahrain Grand Prix wanted the world to be watching -- Saturday's qualifying session for Sunday's scheduled Formula One race.

Instead this is the type of road action the world is watching: mass protests from the Bahrain opposition movement, which is trying to keep the race from happening, and nightly confrontations between activists and police.

Bahrain opposition urges more protests during F1

This confrontation between the regime headed by its Sunni royal family, and the largely Shiite population has been simmering for more than a year. The decision to try to hold the race this year -- last year's was cancelled -- has added high octane fuel to the fight, as has a Internet video in which the opposition uses a toy race set and fireworks to warn the government not to go ahead with the race.

"The regime just trying to deny there is a problem in Bahrain," said Matar Ibrahim Ali Matar, a political activist. "They want to use Formula One as part of their PR to say that the situation return back to normal."

The track itself has become a fortress, although at least one of the teams was caught up in a fire-bombing incident on the way to its hotel. Bahrain's crown prince has tried to justify the decision to go ahead with the race.

"I think cancelling the race just empowers extremists," said Sheikh Salam bin Hamad Al Khalifa. "Having the race allows us to build bridges across communities, get people working together."

There's not much evidence of working together away from the track, where Bahrain is accused of systematic human rights violations and of the indiscriminate use of tear gas.

The race activity has been taking place before virtually empty stands. But the whole world's watching.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.