Bahrain’s long-serving prime minister has died at the age of 84

DUBAI: Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain, the country’s longest-serving prime minister who led his island’s government for decades and escaped the 2011 Arab Spring protests, died on Wednesday amid allegations of corruption. He is 84 years old.

Bahrain’s state news agency reported his death, saying he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic in the United States. The Mayo Clinic did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The power and wealth of Prince Khalifa can be seen everywhere in this small country off the coast of Saudi Arabia, owned by the 5th Fleet of the US Navy. His official portrait was hung on the walls for decades with the ruler of the country. He had his own private island, where he met foreign dignitaries, filled with a marina and a park, with peacocks and eyes wandering around its grounds.

The prince represented the old style of Gulf leadership, which provided support and assistance to the Sunni al-Khalifa family. That style will be challenged in the protests of the Shiite majority and others on the island in 2011, when he protested against the long-standing corruption allegations surrounding his rule.

Despite being less powerful and weaker in recent years, his maneuvers have attracted attention in the kingdom as a new generation is now mocking him for power.

“Khalifa bin Salman represented the old guard in many ways beyond age and seniority,” said Christine Smith Diwan, a senior citizen scholar at the Washington-based Arab Gulf Institute. “He represented an old social understanding rooted in royal privilege and expressed it through personal support.”

The Royal Court of Bahrain has declared a week of official mourning and will bury his body after his return. State television read Quranic verses and showed the black and white image of the prince.

Prince Khalifa was born into the Al Khalifa dynasty, which ruled Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf for more than two centuries, whose name in Arabic means “two seas”. The son of Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the former ruler of Bahrain who ruled from 1942 to 1961, the prince learned to rule on his father’s side as the island was a British defender.

Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the brother of the Prince Khalifa, came to power in 1961 and served as King when Bahrain gained independence from Britain in 1971. Under the informal arrangement, Sheikh Isa handled the island’s diplomatic and ceremonial duties, while at the same time handling the Prince Khalifa’s government and economy.

Bahrain sought to make rapid progress beyond relying on declining oil reserves. At that time Manama became a regional financial, service and tourism hub for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The opening of the King Fahd Causeway in 1986 gave the island nation its first land connection with its rich and powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, and offered to escape to Westerners in the country who want to enjoy Bahrain’s alcohol-soaked nightclubs and beaches.

But Prince Khalifa has been embroiled in corruption scandals involving a London-based mediator to bribe Bahraini officials in a major foreign corruption case against aluminum maker Alkova. Alcoa agreed to pay the US government $ 384 million in 2014 to settle the case.

The U.S. embassy in Manama similarly had its own suspicions about Prince Khalifa.

“I believe Sheikh Khalifa is not a completely negative influence,” said former U.S. ambassador Ronald E. Newman wrote in a 2004 cable published by WikiLeaks. “Although he is certainly corrupt, he has built much of modern Bahrain.”

Those corruption allegations provoked discontent, especially among Bahrain’s Shiite majority who still complain of discrimination by the government today. In February 2011, protesters, inspired by Arab Spring demonstrations across the Midwest, filled the streets and occupied the Pearl Roundabout in the capital, Manama, to demand political reforms, and more could be said for the future of the country.

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

At the height of the unrest in March 2011, thousands of protesters besieged the prime minister’s office, met with officials inside, and demanded the resignation of Prince Khalifa amid allegations of corruption and previous, deadly repression of protests. Protesters have tried to shake up notes of a Bahraini dinar over allegations that Prince Khalifa bought the land where Bahrain’s financial port development sits for only one dinar.

Robert Gates, the former US Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, wrote in his memoirs that he urged the king to force Prince Khalifa to step down as prime minister at the time, describing him as “almost unwanted, but especially Shiites.”

Bahraini authorities, with the support of troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, soon crushed the protests. A report by the government on the protests and repression was followed by security forces beating prisoners and forcing them to kiss pictures of King Hamad and Prince Khalifa.

While Shia protesters often clashed with riot police, a low level of unrest continued in the following years. Shiite militias, which have accused the Bahraini government of seeking support from Iran, have planted bombs that have killed and wounded several members of the country’s security forces.

While other hardline members of the al-Khalifa family have intensified their conflict with the Shiites, Prince Khalifa has maintained contacts with those opposed to the government. Despite its declining influence, Bahrain is one of four Arab countries that have boycotted Doha in a political dispute during the holy month of Ramadan in 2019, led by Qatar’s ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

“Khalifa bin Salman worked with both Sunni and Shia, especially through his relationship with the business community in Bahrain,” Diwan said. “He brought a similar personal approach to relations with other Gulf monarchs, and was a real embarrassment in the new politics exemplified by the ruthless attacks on the Qatari leadership.”

Slowly, his influence waned as he faced the unexplained health problems of Prince Khalifa. He was hospitalized in November 2015, but was later released. He also traveled to Southeast Asia for medical appointments. In late November 2019, he went to Germany for unpublished medical treatments, where he remained for several months.

In September, the U.S. Air Force flew C-17 Flying Hospital from Germany to Rochester, Minnesota, followed by a Royal Bahrain flight. Although US and Bahraini officials declined to comment on the planes, it came shortly before his death to the ruling emir of Kuwait after the United States provided the same care..

Prince Khalifa married and survived three children, sons Ali and Salman and daughter Lulwa. Another son Mohammed died earlier.


Associated Press writers Adam Shrek and Isabel Debre contributed to the report.

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