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MANAMA, Bahrain (VN) —Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa met with VeloNews and a handful of journalists in one of the many rooms of his sprawling royal complex in the capital city of his island nation. The 29-year-old prince had just presented the team and its red and blue jersey with Bahrain written across the chest in a live national broadcast alongside his star rider, Vincenzo Nibali.
Prince Nasser told the reporters that the timing is perfect for the launch of his WorldTour team. He believes a Bahrain-sponsored squad will shed a positive light on his Persian Gulf country, which was embroiled in political unrest earlier this decade.
“We are in a position now where we want to showcase our country,” he said. “We needed this. We really needed this. And actually it is working very well.”
Just six years ago Bahrain was rocked by a series of violent protests aimed at the country’s royal family. The government allowed forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help quell the uprising, which — according to multiple reports — resulted in dozens of deaths. In the wake of the protests, several groups accused the Bahraini government and the royal family of torturing opponents.
The group Bahrain Forum for Human Rights published this 55-page document alleging abuse against activists. In 2015 the Human Rights Watch published its own report that included interviews with 10 detainees who said they underwent coercive interrogations by Bahraini officials.
The latter group also condemned Bahrain’s execution of three convicted bombing suspects this past Sunday by firing squad.
The Bahraini government has repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses. Before meeting with Prince Nasser, reporters were asked to steer away from questions regarding torture and unrest. When VeloNews sought comment on the allegations, we were given the following statement from the Executive Office of His Highness Sheikh Nasser:
“The allegations against Prince Nasser are false. They were made as part of an ill-targeted and politically-motivated attempt to ventilate damaging allegations about Prince Nasser as part of a wider political campaign. The case reported in the media is between an unknown individual ‘FF’ and the English Public Prosecutor, which Prince Nasser was not a party to. Both the UK police and the public prosecutor maintain that they decided not to pursue a case against Prince Nasser on the basis of the series of dossiers of alleged evidence submitted to them”
Prince Nasser acknowledged the negative press that his country has received. He said that the team’s corporate sponsors, which include Bahrani companies Bapco petroleum and aluminum producer Alba, believed it was more important to have the country’s name on the jersey, rather than corporate logos, to better promote the island nation.
“Bahrain went through a lot, especially in the previous years, facing a lot of accusations against Bahrain,” he said. “That even the [sponsoring companies] said, ‘The name of Bahrain is more important than our company on the jersey.
“They said that people should first know about Bahrain and the real intentions, and then when they ask about the companies. They want the flag to be out there and showcase Bahrain to the whole world.”
Prince Nasser has already made forays into endurance sports. In 2015 he helped launch a professional triathlon squad called the Bahrain Endurance 13 Team, and in December 2016 he completed an Ironman triathlon. He said he decided to launch the WorldTour team after a chance, surprise encounter with Nibali in 2015. The two rode bikes together for four hours, sparking prince’s idea for a team.
In January of 2016, he presented the project to the country’s largest companies. He acknowledged that the initial response was not what he had in mind.
“Let me be blunt and straightforward with you. At first, the sponsors did not even understand, they were like, ‘A cycling team? Why?’ But those people who think about the indirect benefit to Bahrain and saw the vision that we saw, actually stayed committed to us. Slowly with time, they will understand the importance of this sport, the outcome of this work for Bahrain,” Prince Nasser said.
“If they all walked away, then I would still be thinking of how can we create this team. We had backup plans, and one of my plans was if it failed was to go to Abu Dhabi and present the team to them because I wanted to have this team.”
As part of Prince Nasser’s recent team presentation, Nibali and other riders led a casual group ride with 450 local cyclists. The ride, Prince Nasser said, is all part of his plan to bring Bahraini’s together through sport.
“[It] was a big success to have the team ride with the locals. They are now more attached than ever. They see themselves on television riding with the professionals. Now we’ve created harmony and created outdoor activity.
“This is how we bring people together. Some people have tensions between them, and now people are joining each other. So sport is actually the answer.”