Obituary: Prince Khalifa bin Salman, Bahrain's long-serving prime minister

Obituary: Prince Khalifa bin Salman, Bahrain's long-serving prime minister
Holding office until his death at 84, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa was one of the world's longest-serving prime ministers.
5 min read
11 November, 2020
Prince Khalifa bin Salman was appointed prime minister in 1971 [Getty]

Bahrain's Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the world's longest-serving prime minister, died on Wednesday aged-84 after leading the island nation's government for half-a-century.   

Bahrain's state-run news agency announced his death, saying he had been receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in the United States, without elaborating. The Mayo Clinic did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prince Khalifa's power and wealth could be seen everywhere in this small nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. His official portrait hung for decades on walls alongside the country's ruler. He had his own private island where he met foreign dignitaries, complete with a marina and a park that had peacocks and gazelle roaming its grounds. 

The prince represented an older style of Gulf leadership, one that granted patronage and favours for support of the Sunni Al-Khalifa family. This would be challenged in the 2011 protests by the island's Shia majority and others, who demonstrated against his position as prime minister and alleged long-running corruption allegations.

"Khalifa bin Salman represented the old guard in more ways than just age and seniority," said Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute, according to AP. "He represented an old social understanding rooted in royal privilege and expressed through personal patronage."

Bahrain's Royal Court announced a week of official mourning, with a burial coming after the return of his body. State television aired a recitation of Quranic verses, showing a black-and-white image of the prince.

The son of Bahrain’s former ruler, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa who ruled from 1942 to 1961, the prince learned governance at his father's side as the island remained a British protectorate.

Prince Khalifa's brother, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, took power in 1961 and served as monarch when Bahrain gained its independence from Britain in 1971. Under an informal arrangement, Sheikh Isa handled the island's diplomacy and ceremonial duties while Prince Khalifa ran the government and economy. 

The years that followed saw Bahrain develop rapidly as it sought to move beyond its dependence on dwindling oil reserves. Manama at that time served as what Dubai in the United Arab Emirates ultimately became, a regional financial, service and tourism hub.

The opening of the King Fahd Causeway in 1986 gave the island nation its first land link with its rich and powerful neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and offered an escape for Westerners in the kingdom who wanted to enjoy Bahrain's nightclubs and beaches. 

Though less powerful and frailer in recent years, his machinations still drew attention in the kingdom as a new generation now jostles for power. 

But Prince Khalifa increasingly saw his name entangled in corruption allegations, such as a major foreign corruption practices case against aluminum producer Alcoa over using a London-based middleman to facilitate bribes for Bahraini officials. Alcoa agreed to pay $384 million in fines to the US government to settle the case in 2014. 

The US Embassy in Manama similarly had its own suspicions about Prince Khalifa.

"I believe that Shaikh Khalifa is not wholly a negative influence," former US Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann wrote in a 2004 cable released by WikiLeaks. "While certainly corrupt he has built much of modern Bahrain." 

Those corruption allegations fuelled discontent, particularly among Bahrain's Shia majority who still today complain of discrimination by the government. In February 2011, protesters inspired by Arab Spring demonstrations across the Middle East filled the streets and occupied the capital Manama's Pearl Roundabout to demand political reforms and a greater say in the country's future. 

While some called for a constitutional monarchy, many others pressed for the removal of the long-ruling prime minister and other members of the Sunni royal family altogether, including King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa.

At one point during the height of the unrest in March 2011, thousands of protesters besieged the prime minister’s office while officials met inside, demanding that Prince Khalifa step down over corruption allegations and an earlier, deadly crackdown on the demonstrations. Protesters also took to waving one Bahraini dinar notes over allegations Prince Khalifa bought the land on which Bahrain's Financial Harbour development sits for just a single dinar.

Robert Gates, a former US secretary of defence under President Barack Obama, wrote in his memoirs that he urged the king at the time to force Prince Khalifa from the premiership, describing him as "disliked by nearly everyone but especially the Shia".

Bahraini officials soon crushed the protests with the backing of troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A government-sponsored report into the protests and crackdown later described security forces beating detainees and forcing them to kiss pictures of King Hamad and Prince Khalifa. 

Low-level unrest continued in the years that followed, with Shia protesters frequently clashing with riot police. Shia militant groups, whom Bahrain’s government allege receive support from Iran, planted bombs that killed and wounded several members of the country's security forces.

He also pursued a middle ground during his country's blockade on Bahrain but his absence leaves a void in Bahrain's political system.

"Now that he is not in the scene, his absence will encourage internal and regional competition on who should take his place," said Ankara-based political analyst Dr Ali Bakeer.  

Slowly though, Prince Khalifa's influence waned as he faced unexplained health problems. He was admitted to hospital in November 2015 but was later released. He also traveled to southeast Asia for medical appointments. In late November 2019, he traveled to Germany for undisclosed medical treatments, remaining there for months. 

In September, a US Air Force C-17 flying hospital flew from Germany to Rochester, Minnesota, following by a royal Bahraini aircraft. While US and Bahraini officials declined to comment on the flights, it came just after America offered the same care to Kuwait's ruling emir just before his death.

Prince Khalifa was married and has three surviving children, sons Ali and Salman and daughter Lulwa. Another son, Mohammed, died previously.

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