DUBAI (Reuters) – Bahrain’s veteran prime minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa quashed repeated opposition unrest in almost half a century in office and was a fierce critic of the Arab Spring, saying it had brought Arabs only “death, chaos and destruction”.
The world’s longest-serving prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa died on Wednesday in Mayo Clinic hospital in the United States, Bahrain’s state news agency said.
Running Bahrain day-to-day since 1971, Sheikh Khalifa was seen for decades as the dominant personality in the government, a foe of Iran, friend of Saudi Arabia and defender of the state’s Al Khalifa dynasty.
Reviled by the mainly Shi’ite Muslim opposition as a leading barrier to reform in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, Sheikh Khalifa advocated a tough response to public protest that saw thousands of opposition activists jailed. Critics say many were tortured or mistreated in detention, a charge Bahrain strongly denies.
Prime Minister since Bahrain’s independence from Britain, Sheikh Khalifa, 84, the uncle of King Hamad, routinely dismissed the opposition’s description of him as the man most responsible for recurrent deadlock in political reform efforts.
He told Germany’s Der Spiegel in 2012: “Believe me, if my position alone were the reason for the unrest, then I would have already stepped down from my office last year. But this is just a further excuse from the opposition.”
In response to a remark that he had served an unusually long time, he told the magazine: “So what? Democratic systems are very different … Why can’t we also be different?”
Bahrain, an ally of fellow Sunni monarchy Saudi Arabia and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has seen periodic unrest since mostly Shi’ite demonstrators took to the streets in February 2011 to call for greater democracy. Many also called for Sheikh Khalifa’s resignation.
STERN RESPONSE TO UNREST
Authorities quelled the 2011 protests and accused Shi’ite Gulf power Iran of stirring up the unrest — a charge Tehran and the opposition deny. Sheikh Khalifa said those who called for violence in Bahrain were terrorists backed by Iran and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah, charges they denied.
The Bahrain opposition complains of discrimination against Shi’ites in areas such as work and public services, and demands a constitutional monarchy with a government chosen from within a democratically-elected parliament.
The government denies discrimination.
Sheikh Khalifa’s supporters say he did more than anyone to turn Bahrain from virtual dependence on oil as a major source of income into a banking and financial centre and one of the Middle East’s biggest aluminium producers.
But his stern response to pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011 — and criticism of similar unrest across the Arab world — underlined what for many was the defining characteristic of his career, namely a stalwart defence of dynastic rule.
“Do you think I am happy to see what has happened in all these countries?” he told Der Spiegel. “This is not an ‘Arab spring’. Spring is connected with flowers, happy people and love — not death, chaos and destruction.”
An international inquiry said in November 2011 that 35 people died in Bahrain’s revolt. The dead were mainly protesters but included five security personnel and seven foreigners.
Following the uprising, mass trials became commonplace and scores of people were imprisoned including leading opposition figures and human rights activists. Many others fled abroad.
Critics said the prime minister bore some responsibility for security force abuses in 2011 alleged by rights groups, because these appeared to be systematic behaviour by the state.
Reconciliation talks between the authorities and the opposition failed to defuse tensions, and mistrust between the opposition and the Al Khalifa remains high.
In 2016 a court dissolved the main Shi’ite opposition group al-Wefaq, accusing it of helping to foster violence and terrorism, in an escalation of a crackdown on dissent.
A turning point in Sheikh Khalifa’s career came with Iran’s 1979 revolution, led by Shi’ite clerics seen by Bahrain and other Gulf states as expansionist firebrands out to weaken rival Sunni powers, in particular Bahrain with its Shi’ite majority.
But in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Bahrain maintained good ties with both countries despite the discovery of what Bahrain said a pro-Iranian coup attempt in 1981, and another in 1986.
As prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa ran daily affairs of state under the late Emir Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who died in 1999, and under his successor King Hamad.
He stood firm against a four-year bout of unrest by Shi’ites in 1994, sending thousands of activists to jails. The protests, demanding political and economic reforms, abated in 1998.
He also cultivated good ties with Arab states. But in June 2017 Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and accuses its neighbours of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.
In May 2019, Sheikh Khalifa telephoned Qatar’s emir to mark the first day of Ramadan in a rare interaction between the feuding group of nations, although the government in Manama signalled no change in political stance.
Sheikh Khalifa suffered a serious heart attack in 1985. After a second heart attack in July 1988, he underwent a triple by-pass operation in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
He received medical treatment in Germany several times in 2020.
(Editing by William Maclean)