Al Khalifa, Hamad Bin Isa (1950–)

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Al Khalifa, Hamad Bin Isa

Shaykh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa became the emir of the state in Bahrain following the death of his father Isa bin Salman on 9 March 1999, and the supreme commander of Bahrain Defense Force. In addition, Hamad holds the titles of field marshal, Royal Bahrain Army; admiral of the fleet, Royal Bahrain Navy; and marshal of the Royal Bahrain Air Force. On 14 February 2002, Hamad proclaimed a new constitution and pronounced himself king of the kingdom of Bahrain. He is also the author of First Light: Modern Bahrain and its Heritage (1994).


Al Khalifa was born on 28 January 1950 in Rifa'a, the royal family's exclusive town, fifteen miles outside Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Hamad was the eldest son of Shaykh Isa, the late emir of Bahrain, and Shaykha Hessa. He was appointed crown prince on 27 June 1964. He studied at the Manama Secondary School in Bahrain for two years before he was sent to the United Kingdom to study for a year at the Leys School, a private school in Cambridge. In September 1967, Hamad joined the British Mons Officer Cadet School at Aldershot for a six-months military training course. While receiving his military training, Hamad was also involved in his father's plan to build the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), founded in August 1968. Hamad joined the BDF and became its commander in chief from January 1970 to March 1999. In 1971, Hamad traveled to the United States for year-long military training at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

For most of the following three decades, Hamad's public roles were largely ceremonial. Following the independence of Bahrain in 1971, Hamad was appointed minister of defense, a position he combined with being the commander in chief of the BDF. Following the eruption of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Hamad began mobilizing the newly constituted BDF to join the Egyptian side. Although a ceasefire agreement was reached before actual deployment of Bahraini troops to the war theatre, the exercise remains a source of pride for Hamad because it displayed Bahraini troops' "readiness to join the war and heroism displayed by Arab troops helped to heal the wounds of the disaster of June 1967" (Al Khalifa, 1994, p. 82).

In 1974, Hamad was appointed deputy to the chairman of the Al Khalifa Family Council (AFC). In the same year he became president of the Supreme Council of Youth and Sports. He has personally taken the initiative to found several institutions, including the Emiri Stables in June 1977, the Historical Documents Centre in 1978, and the Bahrain Center for Studies and Research in 1981. Hamad continued to allocate considerable time and energy developing these institutions and pursuing other personal interests including falconry, horse riding, and golf. In 1978 he became a certified helicopter pilot and was appointed as the first commander of the Bahrain Emiri Air Force.

Notwithstanding his formal positions as the crown prince, minister of defense, and commander in chief of the BDF, Hamad was not offered a realistic possibility to improve his potential or practice in the running of day-to-day political and financial affairs of the state. This can only be partly explained by his preoccupation with recreational interests and hobbies. Other explanations relate to balance of power within the ruling family. Since gaining independence, Bahrain's politics were the reserve of the emir, Isa bin Salman, and his powerful brother, Khalifa, Bahrain's prime minister since 1971. Between them, no additional space was left for the young Hamad. He was not included in the customary consultations before or after the two brothers made major political decisions. The role of the BDF was also ceremonial. Despite the unsuccessful attempt to carve a military role for the BDF in the 1973 War, its political significance was limited to being a recruiting ground for young males from Al Khalifa and its tribal allies. This was not seriously affected by BDF's actual participation in the 1991 Gulf War to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. Further, the better-equipped police and internal security forces that remain under the strict control of the prime minister outnumber the BDF. It was these forces that carried the burden of defending the regime since 1975 when it imposed a state of emergency following the dissolution of parliament and suspension of the 1973 constitution.

Following the death of his father on 6 March 1999, Hamad became the emir of Bahrain. He inherited a country in deep political crises as a result of decades of periodic unrest and systematic violations of human rights that culminated in regular street confrontations between protesters and government forces since December 1994. Those confrontations have, at times, been violent, and led to some twenty fatalities. The main issue of contention has been the opposition's call for the restoration of the constitution and the reinstatement of the parliament that was dissolved by an emiri decree in the summer of 1975.

Soon after assuming power, Hamad promised changes that would result in political stability and economic growth. Throughout the initial period of his reign, he repeatedly assured his people that his priorities include strengthening national unity, internal security, and consolidating solidarity of all Bahrain citizens through elimination of all forms of discrimination based on origin, gender, or creed. These proclamations were well received by most people in Bahrain, a country that was undergoing decades-long political unrest. Some of those proclamations gained their own historical significance, such as his commitment to women's political rights that resulted in granting Bahraini women full citizenship rights in the Bahrain constitution of 2002.


Name: Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (Hamad bin Isa, Bu Salman, and Abu Salman)

Birth: 1950, Rifa'a, Bahrain

Family: Wife, Sabeeka; Seven sons, Salman, Abdullah, Khalifa, Nasser, Khalid, Faisal, and Sultan; Four daughters, Najla, Hessa, Nura, and Munira

Nationality: Bahraini

Education: Manama Secondary School, Bahrain; Leys School, Cambridge, U.K., secondary school; British Mons Officer Cadet School, Aldershot, U.K., 1967, six-month training course; U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, U.S., 1971, one-year military training


  • 1964: Becomes Crown Prince
  • 1970–1999: Serves as Commander in Chief of Bahrain Defense Force
  • 1999–2002: Emir of Bahrain
  • 2002–present: King of Bahrain

After eighteen months of coming to power, Hamad formally announced his intentions to introduce political reforms and to move his country on the path of modern constitutional monarchies. In implementing his reforms, Hamad benefited from his unchallenged power to mobilize both the relatively large financial resources available to the state and its internal security forces. Hamad has made extensive use of the these financial resources and its distributive capacity to exercise control over civil society.

Hamad was encouraged by his state's coffers filling up almost immediately after he assumed power. Following several years of instability and decline, oil prices began in 1999 to show a sustained rise. Bahrain's revenues from oil rose by more than 80 percent that year. This enabled the new ruler to expand his support base within the royal family and among political elites. Hamad's generosity was particularly conspicuous in the makramas (royal favors) he extended to local elites, including some of the newly pardoned political prisoners and exiles. His effective political use of makrama has elevated it into a strategic instrument of rule. The list of makramas dispensed by him between December 2000 and February 2002 is long and by any measure impressive. The most spectacular consisted of diverse housing grants costing over BD172m (approximately U.S.$450m). Another makrama wrote off up to a third of every housing loan owed to the state housing bank. Some 30,000 families, nearly 40 percent of Bahraini citizen households, benefited.

Following its Jordanian mirror image, the Bahraini National Charter has been presented as an attempt to reassert the legitimacy of the ruling family through concessions to opposition demands for reinstating the constitution and for curbing the excesses of the security services. Authors of the charter defined the state as a constitutional monarchy where government decisions are subject to the approval of a freely elected parliament. It stipulates that decisions of the elected parliaments are balanced and moderated by an appointed consultative council. Each of the charters was presented as an integral part of a liberalization package. The package included a general amnesty granting the release of political prisoners, return of exiles, reinstating activists to their government and semi-government jobs, return of confiscated passports, lifting travel restrictions on prominent political activists, and most significantly, lifting of the state of emergency and repealing of state security laws. The Charter states the same guarantees of rights stipulated in 1973 constitution, and reiterates that the people are the source of sovereignty. It solemnly declares that "time has now come for Bahrain to be among the constitutional monarchies with a democratic system that achieves the aspirations of its people for a better future." Hamad faced little difficulty in convincing opposition leaders to back the charter.

On the eve of the plebiscite on 14-15 February 2001, Hamad appeared justifiably triumphant. He had already appeased most critics of the Charter, and its text and modalities were proposed for adoption. Bahrainis, including most of the opposition networks, offered near unanimous approval. Turnout for the plebiscite, in which women participated, was massive, and 98.4 percent voted in favor of the revised text of the National Action Charter. These figures attested to the general mood prevailing at the time in Bahrain: Hamad's promises and reconciliatory gestures created a state of national euphoria without precedent in the island's history since it was conquered in 1783 by the Al Khalifa family and their allies from mainland Arabia.

This was a major achievement for a ruler who, at first, was dismissed as indecisive and uninspiring. In giving him their support, the leaders of the opposition—many of them recently rehabilitated after long years in prison or exile—were hoping he would reinstate the country's elected parliament that had been dissolved by his father in 1975, in exchange for backing his regal aspirations.

On 14 February 2002, Hamad declared the state of Bahrain a constitutional monarchy and himself a king. He also promulgated an amended constitution, and called municipal elections in May and national elections in October. The new constitution gives the king (whose person is inviolate), the loyal protector of religion and homeland, and the symbol of national unity, some wide-ranging authority elaborately detailed in Section One of the Constitution of 2002. He is head of state, supreme commander of Defense Forces, and chair of the Higher Judicial Council. He appoints and dismisses ministers, judges, and members of the Consultative Council. According to article 35, the king may amend the constitution, propose laws, and is the authority for their ratification. The 2002 constitution calls for the formation of a National Assembly, which shares legislative authority with the king and is to be made of two forty-members chambers, Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) and Majlis al-Nuwwab (Chamber of Deputies). Members of the Consultative Council are appointed by the king, whereas members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected on the basis of universal suffrage.


During this initial period of his reign, Hamad seemed to be trying hard to please everyone. The promises he made to various sections of the populations, combined with his inexperience, resulted in raising expectations among his opponents and supporters alike. Most critical among these are leaders of the competing factions within the ruling family itself. This may explain why consolidating his reign was among the most urgent measures taken by Hamad during his first year; he was attempting to protect himself against the ruling family itself.

Although aware that the ruling family is not a monolith, his twenty-five-year tenure as a deputy president of the AFC convinced him of the family's importance as the regime's core constituency and its most trustworthy pool of recruits to administer the security forces of the state and staff other major governmental offices. While relations between members of the Al Khalifa family and its head are formally regulated since 1932 through the AFC, rallying the support of the 2,500-3,000 Al Khalifas was not self-evident. However, Hamad benefited from his long tenure as deputy president of the AFC that has, since 1974, become a formal organ of the state with an executive secretariat and full-time administrative offices headed by an Al Khalifa, who holds the rank of a minister. Members of its board are recognized representatives of various kinship lines and factional alliances within the family. Within its formal meetings the AFC settles family disputes, particularly those related to appropriation of land, sale of real estate, and other properties. Above all else, Hamad took several measures to preserve the unity of the ruling family and he swiftly appointed his own crown prince to head the AFC.

Throughout his first year of reign, Hamad focused on maintaining the cohesion of his family while trying to establish a credible base of authority that could compete with the power base of his uncle, the prime minister. He appointed some trusted members of his faction, including another of his sons, to the AFC. He increased the monthly stipends allocated to each adult member of the royal family and placed more of them in senior positions in government and public institutions. He also embarked on civil engineering improvement works, including new housing projects in Rifa'a, where most Al Khalifa households are located.

In a speech delivered to members of the Shura Council in early November 2000, Hamad announced his intentions to introduce a series of measures to reform the political system. Keywords in his reform plan were constitutional monarchy and bicameral legislative body. A forty-six-member commission was formed to draw up a charter based on common values and practices in the country, to put forward proposals for constitutional reforms, and to elaborate on the parameters of his planned liberalization process. The work of the commission was concluded on 18 December when it presented to the emir its final draft of the Mithaq al-Amal al-Watani, National Action Charter (the Charter). Although formulated in general terms and at times ambiguous, the Charter outlined the emiri political reform plans. In addition to the required political reforms to enhance the hereditary constitutional monarchy of the ruling system, the document puts forward one of Shaykh Hamad's key conditions for introducing the envisaged reforms.

To reduce his opposition's mistrust, Hamad took several measures to improve the human rights situation in the country. Throughout 2000, Hamad announced several makrama, granting conditional pardon to several hundred detainees. Scores of exiles were allowed to return home. Toward the end of that year Hamad announced another makrama, promising citizenship to thousands of Bahrainis who were living without formal citizenship rights.


"When we published the book The First Light in 1986 we referred to Bahrain's experience 'in choosing a political system to take part in decision-making. Bahrain emerged from that experience with a Constitution that was approved by a national assembly that was founded on the two principles of election and appointment (1973). Then Bahrain passed through a parliamentary experience from which it benefited, and from which it will also benefit for the future of its political system in participation and consultation.' We are pleased that we have begun to fulfill that promise and realize that aspiration fifteen years later when the draft National Action Charter was put to a general referendum, despite warnings, and the emergence of a new Bahraini generation that was inexperienced in electoral traditions."


"The National Action Charter and subsequently the articles of the 'amended Constitution'—which was promulgated in accordance with the renewed contract and popular authorization represented by the general referendum on the draft Charter—were the guarantees and checks that I had thought carefully about for years in order to renew the democratic and constitutional march while avoiding the pitfalls that faced the earlier experiment. Intelligent peoples must benefit from their experiences so that they do not repeat their mistakes, and I am confident that the people of Bahrain are one of those peoples."


Although limited, the political reforms initiated by Hamad during the first two years of his reign have created some unprecedented venues for political activity. Gradually those reforms have redefined the political space in the country. This strengthened Hamad's ability to outmaneuver the old guards within the ruling family and weaken the position of his uncle. More than three hundred associations helped to bolster self-confidence among their growing membership and constituencies. Ethnic, regional, and ideological allegiances found expression in forums, associations, and in mosques and religious meeting places. In spite of this, Hamad did not allow his reforms to cause the regime to lose its ability to shape major parts of the visible political terrain of the country. Through manipulation of administrative red tape and legal requirements, the regime continues to control the growth of these associations, its activities, and its freedom of action.

In designing his own reforms plans, Hamad followed closely the similar steps to those taken by King hussein bin talal of Jordan. Hamad learned to admire the late Jordanian king whom he visited immediately after graduating from Mons, seeking Jordan's military help in building Bahraini armed forces. In his book First Light, Hamad speaks with awe of the resolution and spirit of cooperation exemplified in King Hussein. According to Hamad, he thought it was a good omen that during his first visit to Jordan he witnessed a victorious action over the Israelis in the Battle of Karameh on 21 March 1968. The deep personal influence of King Hussein became apparent even in Hamad's appearance and demeanor. While crown prince, Hamad was a frequent guest of King Hussein and followed closely the Jordan monarch's handling of his kingdom.


Hamad is credited with changing the face of political life in his country. Admirers of the Bahraini monarch point out that, for the first time in its modern history, Bahrain jails are empty of political prisoners, that he initiated political reforms that increased respect of human rights organizations, and eased restrictions on freedom of expression and association. His reforms granted equal citizenship rights to women, including the right to vote and to be elected to public office. Hamad is further credited with appointing the first female judges in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as well as encouraging the growth of civil society institutions. His critics fault his reforms for being too slow and for keeping the reforms as his own prerogative and private domain which he jealously guards through his effective use of the state distributive capacity. A more sympathetic view explains Hamad's caution by pointing to the continuing influence of the old guard within the ruling family, including the prime minister whose supporters and protégés control of most key positions in the state.

One of Hamad's lasting legacies is the elevation of makramas from being simply an aid for cooptation of traditional notables and their circulation into becoming a strategic instrument of rule. Critics allege that, although reliance on makramas seems to work for the present, it cannot be a viable alternative to a thoroughly worked out strategy of reforms. In spite of his commitment to reforming his country, Hamad remains reluctant to consult with any of the political groups on any aspect of the political process in the country.


Bahrain National Action Charter, 2001. UNDP-POGAR: Programme on Governance in the Arab Region. Available from

Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. First Light: Modern Bahrain and Its Heritage. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1994

Khalaf, Abd al-Hadi. "Political Reform in Bahrain: End of a Road?" Middle East International Online Edition. Available from

                                          Abdulhadi Khalaf