Al Khalifa Family

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Ruling family of the State of Bahrain, 1782.

In 1782, the Al Khalifa, a prominent trading clan originally based in Kuwait, captured the Bahrain islands. The leader of the family, Shaykh Ahmad bin Khalifa, called "the Conqueror" by his allies, ruled the islands from Zubara, on the northwestern coast of Qatar, until his death in 1796. His sons Sulman, based first at Zubara and then at Manama on the main island of al-Awal, and Abdullah, based in Muharraq on al-Awal, then shared the rulership. They cosigned the pivotal 1820 treaty with Britain that recognized the Al Khalifa as the legitimate rulers of Bahrain. Abdullah outlived both Sulman and Sulman's son Khalifa, acting as sole ruler from 1834 to 1843. He was ousted by Sulman's grandson Muhammad, precipitating a quarter-century of fighting between the descendants of Sulman, based at Manama, and Abdullah, who formed alliances with powerful tribes in Qatar and al-Hasa. In 1869, British forces stepped in to end the fighting and appointed Shaykh Isa bin Ali, a great-grandson of Sulman, who had been in charge of the family's remaining holdings in Qatar, as ruler. Treaties in 1880 and 1892 confirmed Isa's undisputed position.

Around 1900, British officials demanded greater authority over Bahrain's internal affairs. Senior members of the Al Khalifa tried to buttress their deteriorating position by raising taxes on agricultural estates. This sparked riots on the islands in 1923, which prompted Britain to exile Isa and replace him with his son Hamad, who worked with British forces to restore order. Hamad acquiesced in the appointment of a British adviser, who took charge of all branches of the local administration. Hamad died in 1942 and was succeeded by his son Sulman, who preserved the family's prerogatives in the face of intense popular challenges during the mid-1950s. At the height of the unrest, tribes allied to the Al Khalifa formed a militia to protect the regime. These retainers were handsomely rewarded as oil revenues escalated, funding a dramatic expansion of state offices and business opportunities. Hamad named his son Isa heir apparent in 1958, ensuring a smooth transition upon his death three years later.

When Britain granted Bahrain independence in 1971, Shaykh Isa took the title amir and appointed his brother Khalifa prime minister and his son Hamad minister of defense. Other senior shaykhs of the Al Khalifa headed key ministries, particularly those of the interior, foreign affairs, and labor and social affairs. Matters of importance to the family but peripheral to governing the country were left to a council of elders, presided over by the ruler. This institution ensured the integrity of the Al Khalifa by controlling marriage choices, distributing allowances in proportion to each individual's power and status, and underwriting economic ventures undertaken by family members. Supported by plentiful oil revenues, along with an extensive security service, the Al Khalifa kept firm control over the country throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1999, after four years of widespread popular unrest in the mid-1990s, Isa died and was succeeded by Hamad. The new ruler introduced a number of political reforms in an attempt to restore the regime's tarnished legitimacy. A 2001 referendum transformed Bahrain into a constitutional, hereditary monarchy, with Hamad as king. Hamad then repealed the draconian 1974 Penal Code, abolished the State Security Court, and reinstated public employees who had been fired for their political activities. He also appointed a committee to revise the 1973 constitution and prepare for elections to a new advisory council. Opposition organizations charged that the proposals diluted the rights guaranteed by the earlier constitution but commended the king for entertaining a revival of popular participation in policy-making.

see also bahrain; manama.


Herb, Michael. All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Monarchy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Khalaf, Abd al-Hadi. Unfinished Business: Contentious Politics and State-Building in Bahrain. Lund, Sweden: University of Lund, 2000.

Lawson, Fred H. Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1989.

Fred H. Lawson