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Bahrain's rulers aren't blind, they are moving towards democracy says Stewart

NEWS STORY
20/04/2013

Everyone has an opinion about Formula One being in Bahrain and we seem to have heard them all over the past few days. All except for one: that of three-time champion Sir Jackie Stewart. He has now added his voice to the debate.

On the one hand a group of MPs wrote to F1's boss Bernie Ecclestone earlier this week asking him to cancel Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix due to the oppression of the country's Shia majority by its ruling Sunni class. On the other hand, a few days after Ecclestone received the letter, he issued a statement with F1's governing body the FIA which said that "the staging of the Grand Prix in Bahrain will come some way in helping soothe some of the issues which have been raised in the media." Talking to Pitpass' business editor Christian Sylt, Stewart says he believes that more progress has been made than meets the eye.

Writing in the Independent, Sylt says that Stewart describes Bahrain as an "easy target" for the media and adds that it is far more progressive than other Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia where women are forbidden from driving.

"They have already started a move towards democracy. You can go in shorts and a bikini in Bahrain but women can't even drive in Saudi Arabia," says Stewart.

He adds "do you think they are blind? They're not blind. His majesty travels all over the world so also does the Prime Minister. They are going to change. They have got to change but it will not happen in five years never mind 12 months. Some of these journalists are going to say nothing has happened since we left here. That's not true but on the other hand Bahrain are at fault for not communicating.

"I think that the Prime Minister and his majesty have to communicate more fully with the whole media to explain what they have done since last year. But they are not media conscious...that is not their culture. Their culture is 'why would we tell everybody what we are doing?' You tell everybody what you are doing because it would sound better. It would be nicer and people would know that and therefore understand your motives and direction."

Stewart was responsible for the first Bahrain Grand Prix taking place after he had a chance meeting on Concorde with the country's Crown Prince who is a racing fanatic. He introduced the Crown Prince to Ecclestone and the first race took place in 2004.

It ran smoothly until trouble flared up in 2011 and the race was cancelled. Although it has gone ahead since then, it has become a focal point for the protesters. As Ecclestone pointed out on Saturday in typically blunt fashion, "the government here are really, in a lot of ways, stupid to put this race on, because it's a platform for people to use to protest."

Stewart, who is currently in Bahrain for Sunday's race, says that when he was there last year he "went through all the villages. My sons went out with no security. My wife Helen went out to the shopping malls without any security. That was whilst it was being reported to us that the place wasn't safe."

He says that the only evidence of disturbance was that "there were a bunch of rubber tyres with petrol bombs that they throw into them. They burn them and some black smoke and flames come up and it looks like it's a mess. There was no violence going on. What became very obvious to me was that it became the capital of graffiti and they had all messages in English as well as Arabic."

Stewart says that this kind of a civil dispute is nothing new and he compares it to the tension between fans of the rival Rangers and Celtic football teams in his native Scotland.

"It's no different to the Glasgow Rangers and the Glasgow Celtics. One is a Sunni, the other is a Shiite and they had to put a bloody great fence up to keep the two back. The Glasgow constabulary wouldn't allow Hampden Park to be cleared at the same time. The Rangers had to be first and the Celtic guys later. They didn't want them to mix because they would kill each other. That's Roman Catholic and Protestant. In Bahrain we have got Shiite and Sunni."

Stewart believes that the protests in Bahrain will ultimately be counter-productive because the country itself is losing out.

"It destabilises the economy and they are destroying the Bahraini financial district. They built a financial district and it's totally destroyed. All the banks left and the buildings are empty. That's happened in the last few years."

He adds that if the instability continues there could be wider implications both for western economies and F1. Bahrain's involvement in the sport isn't just restricted to its race as the country's sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat also owns 50% of McLaren.

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