Bahrain’s long-serving Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has died, the state media reported. He was 84.
“The Royal Court mourns His Royal Highness … who passed away this morning at Mayo Clinic Hospital in the United States of America,” the Bahrain News Agency said on Wednesday, without elaborating.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa named crown prince Salman al-Khalifa as the new prime minister, the state news agency reported, citing a royal decree. The decree takes effect immediately.
The king announced official mourning for a week during which flags will be flown at half-mast, the agency said.
The burial ceremony will take place upon the repatriation of his body and the funeral will be limited to a specific number of relatives, it said.
Sheikh Khalifa was one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers who led his island nation’s government for decades and survived the 2011 Arab Spring protests that demanded his removal over corruption allegations.
His stern response to the pro-democracy protests 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. The Al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since 1783.
In August, Sheikh Khalifa left the kingdom for what official media called at the time “a private visit abroad”. Earlier this year, he spent time in Germany for unspecified medical treatment, returning to Bahrain in March.
Bahrain, a staunch ally of neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United States, is also the home base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Sheikh Khalifa’s power and wealth could be seen everywhere in Bahrain. 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 roam its grounds.
“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.
“He represented an old social understanding rooted in royal privilege and expressed through personal patronage.”
The son of Bahrain’s former ruler, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who ruled from 1942 to 1961, Sheikh Khalifa learned governance at his father’s side as the island remained a British protectorate.
His 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 Sheikh 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 alcohol-soaked nightclubs and beaches.
But Sheikh Khalifa increasingly saw his name entangled in corruption allegations, such as a major foreign corruption practices case against aluminium producer Alcoa over using a London-based middleman to facilitate bribes for Bahraini officials. Alcoa agreed to pay $384m in fines to the US government to settle the case in 2014.
The US embassy in Manama similarly had its own suspicions about Sheikh Khalifa, writing in cables that the prince had “off-the-books access to income from the state-owned enterprises” such as the Bahrain Petroleum Co and Aluminium Bahrain, the country’s aluminium producer.
“I believe that Shaikh Khalifa is not wholly a negative influence,” wrote former US Ambassador Ronald E Neumann in 2004 in a 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. In February 2011, protesters inspired by the 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 Sheikh Khalifa step down.
Protesters also took to waving one Bahraini dinar notes over allegations the prime minister bought the land on which Bahrain’s Financial Harbour development sits for just a single dinar.
Bahraini officials soon crushed the protests with the backing of troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Low-level unrest continued in the years that followed, with Shia protesters frequently clashing with riot police.
In recent years, Sheikh Khalifa’s influence waned as he faced unexplained health problems.