The death of Bahrain’s Khalifa bin Salman, the longest-serving prime minister in the world, on November 11, 2020, marked the end of an era. Khalifa was known for his hardline positions against political dissent and Shia-led activism challenging the Bahraini monarchy. The appointment of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as the new Prime Minister of Bahrain could mark the beginning of an easing of tensions with the Gulf Arab country’s Shia-dominated opposition.
However, the new Prime Minister faces macroscopic challenges if he is to chart a new course. Recently, the power of hardliners in the royal court has increased, while Bahrain’s negative economic outlook and location at the epicenter of ongoing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are important elements facilitating polarization and conflict.
Succeeding the Most Prominent Hardliner
Before his death, Khalifa bin Salman controlled some of the country’s most important industries: the commercial, banking, transportation, and oil sectors. As Bahrain’s Prime Minister, he had overarching powers over the country’s intelligence and national security, which he used to repress internal dissent, including during the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising.
Khalifa was deeply unpopular among the country’s diverse Shia opposition faction.
Arguably, Khalifa’s death removes a major obstacle to government-opposition dialogue. Khalifa was deeply unpopular among the country’s diverse Shia opposition faction, including its “moderate” and “radical” elements. The former Prime Minister opposed the promulgation of the National Action Charter of Bahrain – put forward in 2001 to end the 1990s popular uprising and return the nation to constitutional rule.
He also contested pro-democracy electoral reforms for the National Assembly, the country’s Parliament. Such a hardline stance and his visceral opposition to representative elements within government were largely motivated by the fear that democratic reforms and a more representative political system would fundamentally threaten the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family in a Shia-majority country, within a region characterized by polarizing, sectarian politics.
An Advocate of Dialogue
Bahrain’s new Western-educated Prime Minister has been at the center of the country’s political power structure for almost 30 years. The son of King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah, Salman was actively involved in his father’s launch of the National Action Charter of Bahrain initiative. He advocated for the reopening of independent news outlets and facilitated the return of Mansoor Al Jamri, the Editor-in-Chief of the popular Al Wasat newspaper, who was forced to resign from his position after covering the 2011 protests.
Manama’s later decision to shut down Al Wasat in 2017 was a clear indication that the Crown Prince’s initiatives had failed to attract sufficient support within the ruling family.
Al Wasat’s closure came in a context in which Prince Salman was under increasing pressure to cease his dialogue with opposition groups. Some outlets went as far as speculating that King Hamad could replace him with his younger brother, Nasser bin Hamad. As a result, Crown Prince Salman remained silent as Bahrain’s government denounced the 2011 protests as instigated by Iran, and as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reacted by sending troops to Bahrain to crush the unrest around Manama’s Pearl Square.
Internal and External Challenges Ahead
As Bahrain’s new Prime Minister, Crown Prince Salman is theoretically in an excellent position to promote the resumption of dialogue between the government and the country’s various opposition movements, which he has long advocated. Nonetheless, there are currently some important factors that could prevent him from prioritizing an inclusive domestic dialogue.
First, despite the death of a very prominent authoritarian such as his great uncle Khalifa, Prince Salman has to deal with the fact that the power of the hardliners within the Al Khalifa family has increased over the past few years. Their leaders include Field Marshal Khalifa bin Ahmed, commander-in-chief of the Manama’s military forces, and his brother Khalid bin Ahmed, Bahrain’s Minister of the Royal Court—who are King Hamad’s cousins and the monarch very much values their advice. Moreover, to ease tensions with the opposition, it would be helpful for Salman to be able to veto future crackdowns. Still, Khalifa bin Ahmed’s firm grip on Manama’s security apparatus is likely to make the Crown Prince’s détente efforts extremely challenging.
The International Monetary Fund is projecting a 4.9 percent decline in the country’s gross domestic product.
Second, the economy is increasingly a source of concern. The precarious financial situation has increased sectarian tensions and the domestic divide between Sunnis and Shia, adding challenges to the prospect of political dialogue. The International Monetary Fund is projecting a 4.9 percent decline in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), with Manama’s fiscal deficit climbing to 15.7 percent of GDP, while Bahrain’s debt-to-GDP ratio stands at well over 100 percent. Such indicators will force Prime Minister Salman to continue—if not toughen—the implementation of unpopular austerity measures, potentially making the Prime Minister unpopular across sects.
Additionally, Bahrain continues to struggle economically despite having received financial support from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, which had already helped to prevent the country’s financial default in the past. Economically dependent on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Bahrain’s leadership faces significant limits in terms of the political concessions it can make to the Shia opposition given the extent to which Saudi and Emirati authorities have the final say on all major decisions in Manama.
Ultimately, the appointment of Crown Prince Salman as Bahrain’s new Prime Minister can itself constitute a conciliatory move towards the opposition due to his apparent openness to dialogue. However, in the coming months, Salman will be overwhelmingly focused on keeping Manama’s finances afloat, while also maintaining the country’s stability amid the region’s geopolitical turbulences. This significantly dims the prospects for the new Prime Minister to be able to challenge hardliners and launch bold outreach initiatives to solve the political crisis that will soon be a decade old.
Co-author: Amine Dinar is an Australia-based geopolitical analyst. He has worked at Foreign Brief and his previous experience includes Research Assistantships at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies (Perth) and the Centre for Energy Policy (Prague). Dinar earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Western Australia; he is currently an intern at Gulf State Analytics (GSA).