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F1 prepares for its Middle East debut

3/29/2004

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Formula One fever is sweeping
Bahrain as the glamour sport breaks new ground with the first
grand prix in the Middle East this weekend.

Security has been tightened and no expense spared for
Sunday's debut in the desert.

A gleaming $150 million circuit has emerged like an oasis
south of the capital Manama, with even the surrounding sand
coated in glue to prevent it blowing on to the track.

Advertising billboards are everywhere.

"They're really going for it," commented one European member
of the Formula One travelling circus on Monday. "Everyone knows
what's going on. You can't really miss it."

In deference to Bahraini Islamists, who forced the
cancellation of an Arab version of the 'Big Brother' reality
television show they deemed immoral, some of the glitz will be
toned down.

Any champagne sprayed on the podium will be strictly
non-alcoholic and there will be no scantily-clad 'Grid Girls.'

"This is an Islamic country and celebrations must conform to
our traditions," said Adel al-Moawada, deputy chairman of
Bahrain's parliament, this month.

Teams have also briefed their personnel on local
sensitivities in a pro-Western country that has traditionally
enjoyed a more liberal atmosphere than some of its conservative
neighbors.

While local youths have protested in the past against
Western-style concerts and "obscene" events, opposition groups
have promised to keep the peace while Formula One is in town.

Four opposition groups -- including the popular Al-Wefaq --
agreed to postpone a protest they planned to hold against the
constitution.

"The four societies wish this event to pass by peacefully
and quietly and not to cause any disruption (to it)," said
Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the al-Wefaq Society.

Organizers say security will be discreet but tighter than
ever in a country that is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet
and neighbors Saudi Arabia, which is battling a surge in al
Qaeda-linked militant attacks.

Bahrain won the right to stage the race as part of a drive
to woo tourists and foreign investment to a country that serves
as the Gulf's financial hub but is also its least wealthy oil
producer.

Hotels, which hiked rates for the race period, are
fully-booked.

Following in the footsteps of booming Gulf tourist hub
Dubai, Bahrain has also launched a "Manama Shopping Formula" to
attract tourists to traditional markets and modern malls.

Organizers expect some 100,000 race fans and say 70 percent
of the tickets have been sold so far. The Sakhir circuit can
host 45,000 spectators a day.

Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, president of Bahrain's
General Organisation for Youth and Sports, said recently that
Bahrain expected big gains.

"Direct economic returns would come from hosting the world's
championships, renting the circuit, and selling tickets," he
said. "Studies show that participants and guests to these events
spend between $100-$300 million."