Bahrain prince hopeful of solution on Grand Prix eve

Bahrain Crown Prince Salman said on Saturday that he is "optimistic" a solution can be found to two years of pro-democracy protests as the kingdom hosts a controversial Formula One Grand Prix.

"I'm optimistic that a solution will be found here," the prince told reporters at the desert Sakhir circuit, south of the capital Manama, on the eve of Sunday's race.

A new round of dialogue between the Sunni minority government and the Shiite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq began in February against the backdrop of fresh protests launched two years after the government crushed a pro-democracy movement with the help of Saudi-led troops.

But the talks have been dogged by disagreement due to what the opposition describes as a "lack of will for reform."

Prince Salman, who was hailed a voice of moderation before the 2011 military intervention said on Saturday: "There is a time and a place for me to step in. It's not yet there."

Bahrain's Shiite opposition has been protesting for a week against this weekend's Grand Prix, which it has branded as a crime after the authorities put a string of pro-democracy activists in preventive detention ahead of the race.

The 2011 event was cancelled but last year's went ahead although it, like this year's, was marred by protests away from the circuit that sparked bloody exchanges with security forces.

Sunday's race is seen as a boost to the image and economy of the tiny Gulf monarchy that has a Shiite Muslim majority but is ruled by a Sunni dynasty and which has been rocked by continuing Arab Spring-inspired unrest.

Security forces have been on high alert during days of protests to prevent clashes from marring the race, with checkpoints at major intersections, especially on roads leading to the racing circuit.

"We've never used this race to say that everything's fine," Prince Salman said. "We recognise there are issues in the country but they are to be solved in a political process which is well underway.

"Let's focus on what's positive."

The mainstream Shiite opposition has staged peaceful protests which it says are aimed at drawing attention to its calls for reform.

"I think they were largely peaceful -- people expressing their rights to disagree," Salman said.

"That's the kind of thing that we want to support but what we don't want to support are the violent extremists and very little distinction has been made between the two."