Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa was appointed prime minister on Wednesday after the death of his predecessor, who had held the post since the small Gulf nation gained independence in 1971.
Khalifa bin Salmane Al-Khalifa, who died at the age of 84, was the world's oldest prime minister. He was very unpopular with the Shiite community of the kingdom ruled by a Sunni dynasty and seat of the American Fifth Fleet.
According to the official Bahraini news agency BNA, he died in the morning at the Mayo Clinic hospital in the United States. His funeral will take place after the body is repatriated and will be limited to relatives due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus.
The country will observe an official one-week mourning with the flags half-masted. The administrations will be closed for three days.
A few hours after the announcement of his uncle's death, King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman, a 51-year-old pragmatist, educated in the West and tried to build bridges with the opposition, unlike its predecessor.
The Crown Prince had in fact assumed the duties of the Prime Minister for several years, Sheikh Khalifa having gradually eclipsed with age.
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Praised for his leading role in Bahrain's economy, Sheikh Khalifa has been accused by his detractors of embodying the regime's hard line by opposing any political reform and systematically suppressing dissidents.
Known to be close to Saudi Arabia, he adopted the greatest firmness against the protest movement of the Shiites who demanded changes in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011. The repression was bloody.
His departure was demanded by the demonstrators who had occupied the place of the Pearl of Manama for a month in February 2011.
This square was renamed by thousands of demonstrators
Tahrir Square – epicenter in Cairo of the revolt which ousted ex-president Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011, the protesters demanding a true constitutional monarchy.
But the uprising was crushed in mid-March after the entry of troops from the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, to protect vital installations.
An ally of the United States
For many years, Sheikh Khalifa worked to make Bahrain – which, unlike other Gulf monarchies, has only modest oil resources – a regional financial center.
It also strengthened relations with the United States, to which its government granted military facilities at the time of independence in 1971. Bahrain is the seat of the American Fifth Fleet and also houses a British military base.
After the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by Iraqi troops under Saddam Hussein, pro-democracy protests took place in Bahrain.
In 1992, a Majlis al-Choura, or advisory council, was created. But that did not prevent the anti-government unrest which, led by the Shiite opposition, resumed in 1994 with calls for the re-establishment of the elected parliament.
The unrest lasted until 1999 when Sheikh Hamad ascended to the throne and initiated reforms which in 2002 restored the elected Parliament.
Since the 2011 dispute, the kingdom has been shaken by sporadic unrest fueled, according to the authorities, by
violent terrorist groups linked to Iran Shiite, which Tehran denies.
The main opposition movements have been dissolved and dozens of dissidents imprisoned and stripped of their nationality.
This crackdown, denounced by human rights organizations, has not endangered the relationship between Manama and Washington.
Several leaders in the region praised the memory of Sheikh Khalifa in messages of condolence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose country has just normalized relations with Manama, praised his
contribution to achieve peace between the two countries.