(MENAFN - Arab News)Bahrain won a major psychological battle on Saturday against those hoping to discredit the island nation and force the cancellation of the Formula One Grand Prix as hundreds of thousands of colorfully dressed race fans flocked to the Bahrain International Circuit.
All the top teams were in attendance at Sakhir, about 35 km from the capital city, and the excitement was palpable above the deafening whir of the high-revving road machines.
"We love Bahrain and what all happened in the last few months is now history," said Bahraini student Saad M. Fatouh. "All eyes were on us, and the media had made a big deal about the little skirmishes here and there."
Gulf Air is one of the key sponsors of the event, and airline CEO Samer Majali was excited. Watching the race from the Paddock Club stand, he said this is the best thing to happen to Bahrain after a disastrous 2011. "We all suffered because of the disturbances, but now everything is back on track as is evident from the successful hosting of the F1 Grand Prix."
Majali came down heavily on some sections of the media for blowing things out of proportion. "If you watch television, it looks as if Bahrain is on fire. That is not the case. Every week we have demonstrations, people and their representatives talk against the government and then disperse. What happens is that some bored 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds get out of hand and hurl stones and Molotovs and disrupt traffic. That is when security forces are on the scene. This then gets reported in a big way in the international press," he said.
Formula One is a blessing, he said, for businesses and airlines. "We are not talking about the revenue, but the psychological impact. That is huge, the media will hopefully report that everything is fine in and with Bahrain," said Majali.
It was like a carnival in Sakhir with brisk sales of official merchandise and programs for both adults and children. Fast-food outlets were swamped with customers, and racegoers found the pleasant weather and cool breeze made for a near-perfect day.
"I cannot believe my eyes," said Indian expatriate Renin D'Souza. "This is the Bahrain we always knew. These troublemakers made things difficult and scared all of us, but we kept our faith in the king and the crown prince. They managed to bring life back to Bahrain," she told Arab News as she posed for a picture with a Charlie Chaplin look-alike.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa described Formula One as a force of good for the country. "The people of Bahrain have gotten together to celebrate the occasion - that is extremely good for the Kingdom's economy and progress," he said. "All the people in Bahrain, forgetting what sects and ethnicity they came from, worked together for the good of Bahrain."
In an earlier statement, he exhorted Bahrainis to ensure that "traitors and extremists" should not be allowed to disrupt that process. The people of Bahrain responded to that call by turning out in huge numbers at the event. There were men, women, teenagers and children - all of them were basking in the event's success. A throng of fans queued up to get the autographs of their favorite drivers.
When Nasser bin Hammad Al-Khalifa, the third son of the Bahraini king and chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sport and president of Bahrain Olympic Committee, turned up among the crowds, he was cheered enthusiastically. He was literally mobbed with youngsters vying with each other to get a picture with him. He obliged everyone with a smile. He shook hands with all those present and expressed gratitude for the turnout and their stand against those seeking to disrupt the race. Like most Bahrainis, he seemed extremely pleased.
There were ministers as well and other members of the royal family. There were chief executives and head honchos of top companies operating in Bahrain. All wanted to register their presence and to repose their confidence in Bahrain and its economy. Also among them was Indian cricketer Yuvraj Singh. He recently returned from the US following medical treatment for cancer. He has been in Bahrain as the guest of the popular Dadabhai family. Many cricket lovers came to the circuit just to see him and shake hands with him.
Security was the last thing on the mind of three-time Formula One titleholder Sir Jackie Stewart. "Bahrain Grand Prix is one of the best races in the world as it is so well organized. It includes the homely feel and hospitality," he told the English language Daily Tribune.
On Friday night, the King Fahd Causeway was packed with Bahrain-bound vehicles. There were clear signs that people had begun to feel confident of visiting Bahrain. A large number of them were families and most of them Saudi. In Manama Friday night, things were pretty normal in quiet contrast to the media reports that were suggesting that the country was ablaze. Police maintained a presence and patrolled the highways, but beyond that, there was nothing out of the ordinary.
"My wife and daughters-in-law have been to Manama for shopping and some sightseeing, and security was the last thing they thought about," Stewart was quoted as saying in the local newspaper.