Bahrain revisited, mega-projects and the purple people of London

World Trade Centre, Bahrain

World Trade Centre, Bahrain 


If the truth be told we did not really enjoy the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2004. The circuit seemed soulless and the hotel was a monster rip-off, full of Russian hookers who had the irritating habit of ringing around rooms in the middle of the night, touting for customers. The impression we got was that Bahrain was a den of iniquity floating off the coast of Saudi Arabia, an island which thrived on alcohol and whoring. The attitude seemed to be that we were there simply to hand over our money to the locals.

Thus when we set off this year for Bahrain there was little enthusiasm. But what a difference a year makes. It was very clear from the moment the plane landed that Bahrain had woken up to the concept of Grand Prix racing. Everything in the airport had a racing car on it, the newspapers were full of articles about F1 and how it was going to help the country to progress. We had changed hotels and our new lodging was civilised and so anxious to please that they gave us all a traditional Bahraini coffee set to take home at the end of the stay. It was the first time in 20-odd years that a hotel management has given me anything other than grief or a small chocolate on the pillow.

The most important thing was that the attitude of the people really seemed to have changed. Everyone seemed friendly and enthusiastic. They appeared to want the race to be a success, to showcase the country's grand plans for the future and do what Formula 1 races are supposed to do for a country.

There is no getting away from the fact that Bahrain is in an intense rivalry with nearby Dubai. Both are building frantically, trying to outdo one another. Dubai is building this, so Bahrain is building that. Money is not the problem. In fact at times it seems to be almost irrelevant as in the Middle East it comes out of the ground. Bahrain has a whole series of mega-projects in the pipeline, the latest being a $4.7bn causeway which will go out across the Gulf of Bahrain to link the country with nearby Qatar. This will be around 25 miles in length, longer than the existing causeway which links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia (across which many of the five million tourists who visit Bahrain every year travel). The Bahrainis say they want this figure to go up to seven miilion by 2007 and they see the Grand Prix as being the thing that will help them achieve this ambitious figure. They are so confident that it will work that they are filling the place with big hotels and mega-malls. By the time we go back to Manama next year there will be a vast new World Trade Centre towering over the city - two vast 50-storey buildings which from afar will look like the sails of yachts. Across the road will be the huge Bahrain Financial Harbour development and just up the road a new City Centre development. There are resorts popping up all over the island and manmade islands are rising for the sea to house the deep-pocketed tourists of tomorrow. By next year the city will probably have sufficient hotel rooms to cope with the influx of visitors for the Grand Prix. At the moment there is a shortage which means that prices are high and many of the Paddock Club visitors have to be flown in on race day from Dubai.

There is an energy about the place now that did not seem to be there a year ago.

While the F1 circus was in town the foundation stones were laid near the circuit for two huge of tourist developments and an announcement was made about the establishment of a car manufacturing facility to build supercars. It will be the first such factory in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain Airport is receiving a $185m revamp and Gulf Air is expanding fast, using the race sponsorship to spread the word. Bahrain is on the move

It is almost as if Formula 1 has finally taken on a clearly defined sociological reason to exist. For years we have known of the effect of F1 in tidying that tidying up Long Beach back in the 1980s. F1 breathed new life into the moribund Albert Park and St Kilda districts in Melbourne. This effect is what they are looking for in Malaysia, in Turkey, in Shanghai and in Mexico and many other projects. If you are willing to invest the kind of money needed to get F1 you can (but not necessarily will) enjoy the benefits.

The Grand Prix this year was a celebration of all that is good about F1 after a winter when all things seemed to be bad. Everyone seems to be enjoying this season and the explanation one hears time and time again from those in the paddcock is that with Renault winning, there is something new. Toyota is close. McLaren and Williams can win and even BAR thinks that the opportunity is there. And, inevitably, Ferrari believes it can fight back.

Formula 1 is interesting and fun again.

And so we left Bahrain and forgot about all the bad things of 2004. We flew to Heathrow Terminal 3 and looked around and wondered where the Third World will be in a few years from now. Escaping the airport we travelled to the city centre on The Heathrow Express and felt abused by the purple people who run the service and revel is squeezing every penny from every passenger.

The attitude seemed to be that we were there simply to hand over our money.

It looks like London needs a Grand Prix.

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