F1 prepares for its Middle East debut

Updated: March 29, 2004, 9:24 AM ET

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."