The Al Khalifa of Bahrain, an absolute monarchy under the constitutional cloak | People

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The recent history of Bahrain's ruling family is one of missed opportunity. At the head of a tiny country (the third smallest in Asia), the Al Khalifa were fortunate not to have too much oil. That encouraged the emirate to become the financial and tourist center of the Arabian peninsula before Dubai took the scepter from it. After succeeding his father in 1999, Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa al Khalifa asked and obtained from his subjects in a referendum the support to become a constitutional king. But his democratizing promises were flustered and the protests ruined his image.

The king. Hamad, who is 70 years old today, reinstated Parliament, gave women the right to vote and freed political prisoners. The new king was projected beyond the region with the Bahrain Grand Prix, the first Formula 1 race to be held in the Middle East. Since its inception in 2004, it was much more than a sports competition. Every spring, the Sakhir racetrack, on the outskirts of Manama, the Bahraini capital, becomes a great public relations instrument where the monarch entertains world leaders, including the Spanish Juan Carlos de Borbón, when he was reigning king, and local entrepreneurs display their proximity to power.

The suspension of the test in 2011, following protests by the spring Arabic, marked a turning point. The resumption the following year was controversial. The harshness with which the monarchy responded to demands for democratization irremediably stained the profile of the little kingdom. Going to the race was interpreted as support. The atmosphere was no longer the same.

Since then, human rights defenders and dissidents have been imprisoned, silenced or forced into exile. Demonstrations are officially prohibited. The damage to the image of the country had a great economic cost. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which sent troops and police to silence the demonstrations, had to rescue their neighbor.

Hamad has four wives who have borne him 15 children, one of whom died in a car accident at age 13. His first wife, following tribal customs, was a cousin, Sheikh Sabika; the second, Sheikh Sheia, a Kuwaiti; of the third and fourth, both Bahrainis, the names are not even known as only whose daughters have been published.

The uncle. One of the main obstacles to the reform that Bahrainis were demanding in 2011 was the king's uncle, Khalifa Bin Salman al Khalifa. At the head of the Government since 1970 (one year before independence), the protesters held him responsible for appropriating the most valuable land on the island and stopping changes towards equal rights for all citizens. Historically, Shiites (two-thirds of the 750,000 Bahrainis) have complained of discrimination. Today, at 84, he remains prime minister, the oldest in the world. Married to a cousin, they had three sons and a daughter, one of whom is a deputy prime minister.

Despite the fact that Bahrain elects the lower house of Parliament, power remains in the hands of the king and his family (half of the ministers are princes), who follow the Sunni branch of Islam. The main opposition party, Wefaq (Shiite Islamist), was dissolved in 2016; the following year the only independent newspaper was forced to close, Al Wasat.

The heir. Unlike the rest of the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, the succession in Bahrain is marked by the progeny. So the heir is Salman, Hamad's first son. He was barely 30 when his father came to power and presented himself as a modernizer. However, his ability to influence was blocked by his great-uncle, the powerful prime minister, with greater social connections, especially among businessmen. The shock was evident during the 2011 protests, from which he emerged weakened by failing to reach a compromise with the protesters. Since then, he has regained political and economic ground, aided no doubt by his friendship with the UAE's heir, Mohamed Bin Zayed, who has provided development aid and infrastructure investments.

He has four children from his marriage to Sheikha Hala, who died in 2018. There is no record that he has remarried.

Other princes. One of the best known is undoubtedly Naser, the first son of the king with his second wife. He became known in the midst of the crisis of 2011 as president of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports. Several victims of the repression accused him of having tortured them personally. Today, about to turn 33, he has 1.5 million followers on Instagram, where he posts photos with his father, but especially of his participation in the Yemen war as head of the Royal Guard and in resistance races. This is a hobby he shares with his father-in-law, the Emir of Dubai. He married Sheikha Seija Bint Mohamed in 2009.

His brother Khaled, two years younger, follows in his footsteps and is a commander in the special force of the Royal Guard and vice president of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports. A year ago he replaced Naser as chair of the Bahrain Olympic Committee. As such, and to the surprise of many, he dismissed a grandson of the prime minister as head of the basketball association last October.


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