Once-Reformist Crown Prince Takes the Helm as PM in Bahrain

Bahrain’s crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, has taken over as prime minister after the death of his hard-line great uncle who held the job for half a century, with scant expectations for political change in the autocratic state he once sought to open up.

Viewed early on as a reformist within the ruling family, Sheikh Salman, 51, was instrumental in short-lived efforts to restore parliamentary life to the small Gulf Arab country and build trust between the Sunni Muslim royal family and a Shiite majority that had long complained of discrimination. Those efforts, opposed by the formidable prime minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, came apart as the Arab Spring uprising swept the island in 2011.

The crown prince pushed for dialog with Bahrain’s main Shiite opposition party but ultimately lost out to hard-liners who turned to Saudi Arabia for help, crushing protests and rounding up political opponents as the island’s brief experiment with democratization became ensnared in a broader struggle between Saudi Arabia and its Shiite rival Iran.

Once-Reformist Crown Prince Takes the Helm as PM in Bahrain

“Security is not the only guarantor of stability,” Sheikh Salman said in 2012 as the crackdown gathered strength. “Without justice there can no freedom, and without freedom there can be no true security.”

As the Arab Spring passed, the country became increasingly financially beholden to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — which offered multi-billion dollar bailouts and whose authoritarian leaders have no interest in democratization on their doorstep. Meanwhile, Bahrain’s economic challenges have only grown, and will likely be Sheikh Salman’s main priority as the country slashes its budget and tackles the coronavirus pandemic.

Going forward, his focus is likely to be on the economy. In August, Bahrain received its first downgrade in over two years from Fitch Ratings, which said it will likely “require further Gulf backing” from its neighbors in the medium-term as the government’s finances remain under strain. The government did not respond to a request for comment.

“Maybe 10 years ago, before the 2011 uprising, I think some of the Bahraini opposition would have loved to see Crown Prince Sheikh Salman become the prime minister,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East analyst at the European Leadership Network. Now, “even if Bahrain wanted to go in that direction, it would be held back,” and it’s unclear if the crown prince “still has that impetus he used to have of wanting something more inclusive.”

Milestone

Moving on from the late Sheikh Khalifa is a milestone for Bahrain nonetheless. Prime minister since Bahrain’s independence from Britain in 1971, he was a hugely influential figure who was instrumental in establishing the modern state and ran the daily affairs of government for decades alongside the king, a position currently held by the crown prince’s father, Hamad bin Isa.

Sheikh Khalifa’s influence opened him up to accusations of corruption that came to the fore in 2011 protests with calls for his removal, and he was skeptical of economic and labor reforms that were pushed through by the U.S. and British-educated crown prince in the 2000s.

Once-Reformist Crown Prince Takes the Helm as PM in Bahrain

The late premier was also a bulwark against political change in the smallest Gulf Arab state, an American ally that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and recently became the second Gulf country to establish ties with Israel. It was Sheikh Khalifa who squashed Bahrain’s first experiment in parliamentary politics in the 1970s, before later playing a central role in putting down Bahrain’s uprisings.

For Ala’a Shehabi, a Bahraini activist abroad who was briefly imprisoned herself, the shift offers some hope for political change though the crown prince has effectively been in power for years, as his great-uncle’s health waned, and largely maintained the status quo.

“They have defeated the opposition in the sense that every single political leader is in exile, or in jail, or silenced,” said Shehabi. “Is this going to provide the regime with an opportunity to solve the political differences or the political rift in the country — the fractures within the country — with this exiled opposition?”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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