Al Khalifa, Khalifa Bin Salman (1935–)

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Al Khalifa, Khalifa Bin Salman

Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has been prime minister of Bahrain since its independence from Britain in 1971. A businessman with real estate and other interests in Bahrain, Southeast Asia and the U.K., he is said to be the wealthiest individual in the kingdom.


Khalifa bin Salman was born 24 November 1935 in Al Jasra, one of the ruling family's seaside retreats, outside Manama, the capital. He is the second of three sons of Shaykh Salman bin Hamad, ruler of Bahrain from 1942 to 1961. He received no formal education, but was tutored in reading and writing as well as other traditional skills.

Shaykh Khalifa received his first official appointment in 1954 as a member of a government committee to solve rent disputes. Upon returning from Britain, where he took an English language course in 1957, he was appointed president of the Education Council. In the following three years he combined this role with several other official supervisory positions. Between 1960 and 1966 Khalifa was president of the Finance Directorate of the government of Bahrain. From 1962 to 1967 he was also chairman of the Manama Municipal Council. In 1966 he was appointed chairman of the newly formed Administrative Council, a quasi-cabinet, which was renamed the State Council in 1970. Following Bahrain's declaration of independence on 15 August 1971, Khalifa was appointed the country's first prime minister—a position he has held ever since. Khalifa has also held other key posts including the presidencies of the Bahrain Monetary Board, the Scientific Council, the Supreme Defense Council, the Supreme Oil Council, the Civil Service Board, and the Supreme Economic Development Council.

With his appointment in 1960 as president of the Finance Directorate, Khalifa became the most powerful member of the ruling family. Even after his brother Shaykh Isa bin Salman's accession as ruler in 1961 after the death of their father, Khalifa remained the most powerful of the three brothers. His position was enhanced by his experience, his control of the country's finances, and his business acumen, as well as his hands-on control of the government bureaucracy and internal security apparatus. Indeed, Khalifa was perceived throughout his brother's reign as the de facto ruler of the country. This point is carefully noted in Khalifa's official biography, which praises his brother for the "sagacity and insight" that led him to assign "executive leadership to the man who could efficiently shoulder the weighty responsibility, despite all the difficulties entailed." All "the development Bahrain has achieved—and [is] still achieving—is the result of decades of [Khalifa's] struggle, endeavor and sacrifice" (Hamad, p. 12).


Khalifa has played a central role in building the government administration, modernizing its structures and personally recruiting its leading personnel. In 1960, when he was appointed president of the Finance Directorate, government administration was rudimentary and its employees represented only a small portion of Bahrain labor. Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO), then a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California, had been the major employer in the country since the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932. In 1960, government structure, functions, and personnel were legacies of British administration and dealt primarily with elementary duties of state such as maintaining public order, collecting customs duties, and dividing accrued oil revenues between the ruling family and the government. Paucity of educated local personnel made government offices dependent on recruits from the Indian subcontinent, and the schools on Arab recruits, particularly from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.

Khalifa oversaw the expansion of government services through direct investment, which turned the government into the major employer in the country in 1971, with more than 50 percent of the labor force. Continued expansion in the public sector, as well as increases in government investment in industrial and commercial projects, consolidated the role of the state as Bahrain's major employer. Recruitment for all major positions in government agencies and businesses have been personally monitored and approved by the prime minister himself. Khalifa became the focal figure for both admiration and discontent with wages and working conditions.


Name: Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa (Khalifa bin Sulman, Abu Muhammad, Abu Ali)

Birth: 1935, Al Jasra, Bahrain

Family: Wife, Hassa; three sons, Muhammad (d. 1974), Ali, Salman; one daughter, Lulwa

Nationality: Bahraini

Education: No formal education


  • 1954: Member, Rent Disputes Committee; Education Council
  • 1957–60: President, Education Council
  • 1960–66: President, Finance Directorate
  • 1962–67: Chairman, Manama Municipal Council
  • 1966–1971: Chairman, Administrative Council (renamed State Council, 1970)
  • 1971–present: Prime minister

Another important contribution by Khalifa was his role in the intense diplomatic negotiations following Britain's announcement in early 1968 of its decision to withdraw its military forces from the Gulf as part of its "East of Suez" strategy. In response, Iran reiterated its historic claim to Bahrain, threatening to move in to fill the military vacuum once the British troops left. With the help of King Faysal (1964–75) of Saudi Arabia, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941–79) agreed to refrain from use of force once he was convinced that the "residents of Bahrain do not wish to unite with [his] country" (Hamad, p. 16). Khalifa became directly involved in the negotiations with the Iranians and the British on the appropriate ways of appraising the wishes of the Bahrainis. These negotiations resulted on 26 March 1970, in a joint request by Britain and Iran to the secretary general of the United Nations to send a special envoy to Bahrain to report on the opinion of its people. The fact-finding mission concluded its report on 30 April noting that that "the proposed state should be an Arab state." In the following decade Khalifa paid two official visits to Tehran, which helped maintain his close personal relations with his Iranian counterparts, and encouraged Bahraini businessmen to develop their economic and financial ties with Iran. According to his official biography, Khalifa believed that with the fall of the Shah of Iran, Bahrain lost a regional ally and he a personal friend. These sentiments may have been influenced by the uneasy relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Bahrain since 1979, including occasional Bahraini charges that Iran insists on exporting its revolution to its neighbors. The fact that nearly two-thirds of the population of Bahrain are Shi'ite fuels its government's suspicions of Iranian regional ambitions. Tension increased following the start of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980, which led to occasional severing of diplomatic ties and bans of travel between Iran and Bahrain.

Among Khalifa bin Salman's less remarkable contributions is his role in promoting Bahrain's claims to be the leader of the Gulf shaykhdoms. Together with his brother Shaykh Isa, Khalifa was involved in the intense negotiations among rulers of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Qatar, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. These negotiations were motivated by Britain's decision to withdraw its military presence from the Gulf in 1968. Britain encouraged the nine shaykhdoms of the Gulf to form a political union, which would provide the basis for stability in the region. Various proposals were discussed by the rulers of those shaykhdoms. Bahrain, the most populous of the nine at the time, insisted on popular representation and proposed a referendum to determine the will of the people of the proposed union. Upon rejection of his proposal, Khalifa bin Salman walked out of the meeting, declaring that in Bahrain's view "the union should be established among peoples, not among governments."

Modernization and the Parliamentary "Experiment"

Khalifa also took a leading role in modernizing the regime. Following the 1972 "March uprising," which was the culmination of various actions organized by an alliance of underground opposition networks and public figures, the government publicly agreed to several opposition demands, including modernization of labor laws and legalization of trade unions. The regime also took steps to implement earlier promises to draft the country's first constitution. A partially elected Constituent Assembly (both the franchise and the seats were restricted to men only) debated and adopted a draft constitution, which was proclaimed by the emir in July 1973. On 7 December that year voters elected a thirty-member National Assembly following an electoral campaign involving various political forces, including well-known public figures representing the underground networks. While the majority of members of the National Assembly were members of communist, Pan-Arab, and Islamist networks, it remained powerless in the face of the government. In his role as a prime minister, Khalifa was able to effectively manipulate differences among parliamentary blocs and, as a result, prevent the Assembly from taking up its legislative role or becoming a credible body capable of monitoring government policies. Khalifa expressed displeasure with a parliament whose members resorted, even in the first parliamentary working session, to "certain patterns of behavior, mistakenly thought by some members as part of the democratic process, whereas they were merely fruitless arguments, incompatible with the spirit of true parliamentary practices, and obstructive in the efforts of the State in many fields of national Service" (Hamad, p. 202).


"The Consultative Council—a distinguished experiment in which we take pride—is the result of such interaction and integration among state institutions. It includes 40 members who represent various groups and sects in Bahrain. It has carried out its role in full as a partner in making political and economic decisions and as a forum where various views and trends are aired. When we talk about our hopes for the future of our country in the new millennium we say that we hope to continue with the same determination and enthusiasm to safeguard the achievements and gains that have been accomplished in order to continue with the security and stability Bahrain has enjoyed for a long time and that lie behind its progress and renaissance."

                                                (21 MARCH 2000).)

[Commenting on rumors of disagreements with the king:] "Understanding with His Majesty King Hamad and Crown Prince and BDF Commander-in-Chief Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa is at its highest … His Majesty immediately updates me by telephone on his talks in total transparency." He reiterated his unabated keenness to continue serving Bahrain politically, economically and socially.


The parliamentary "experiment" was evolving into a threat to the regime because it also expanded other informal political spaces. Disenfranchised women's groups were organizing in towns and in the countryside and taking actions challenging the regime and its conservative clerical allies. Scores of petitions were organized by women activists and presented to the National Assembly demanding rights, from voting and other political rights to the provision of child day-care centers. Other groups including Bahraini biduns (stateless legal residents of Bahrain who lack formal rights of citizenship even though most can document generations-old roots in Bahrain), trade unionists, and the unemployed began using the National Assembly to put forward their grievances and demands.

During the summer recess of the National Assembly in 1974, the government issued a "state security decree" giving the internal security apparatus unrestricted powers. Opposition groups were undeterred. The government faced an overwhelming parliamentary majority against the decree when it proposed it to the National Assembly as a draft State Security Law. Year-long negotiations with various parliamentary blocs were fruitless. This was the first time that Khalifa's abilities as a negotiator failed to overcome his adversaries. On 25 August 1975 Khalifa submitted his resignation to the emir, on the grounds that his government was hindered from fulfilling its duties by the uncooperative National Assembly. In his letter of resignation, Khalifa complained that "parliamentary life has been deviated from the right path, and the effective role of moderate views has been hampered." Consequently, he writes, "the Government was unable to finalize the aspired legislations, or carry out the projects planned for the benefit of the citizens. Those who do not adopt our principles, or believe in our ideals, exploited the situation and worked furtively to realize the aims of their ideologies" (Hamad). The emir, using his constitutional prerogative, promptly dissolved the Assembly and reappointed Khalifa as prime minister.

Dissolution of the Assembly

Dissolution of the Assembly was also influenced by a change of national fortune as a result of the rise in oil prices following the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. While Bahrain produces only around 200,000 barrels per day, oil remains the major source of income for the country and facilitates the growth of other major economic activities including banking and offshore businesses. From the start of the oil boom, Shaykh Khalifa and his government became increasingly impatient with the intrusive (as they saw it) role of the parliament. Indeed, Khalifa saw the parliamentary debates as obstructions for his plans to expand the economy, modernize the state, and maintain security and political stability. During the following twenty-five years, Khalifa would administer the affairs of the state almost single-handedly and without intrusion by other people except his own appointees. The increase of state revenues during the first oil-boom years facilitated the modernization and expansion of the country's infrastructure, but contributed nothing to its democratization.

With the rising oil revenues the government of Shaykh Khalifa became the generous provider of basic social, education, and health services. In becoming the supreme patron, Khalifa demonstrated a remarkable ability to maintain balance among competing segments of society. Khalifa utilized the expanded financial resources of the state to continue recruiting supporters from nearly every social background to the government bureaucracy and public sector enterprises. Khalifa's detractors allege that he has often looked the other way while encouraging senior officials to indulge in personal enrichment. While these allegations have not been investigated by an independent commission or by a court of law, opposition groups continue to publish reports documenting rampant corruption in the government and public institutions, and, opponents charge, this corruption has been a means of consolidating the regime's control over the country through a pyramid of patron-client relationships. While corrupt officeholders have benefited from the prime minister's generosity, they remain both vulnerable and in constant need of his protection.

The entrepreneurial sector was a major beneficiary of oil-boom investment, and it provided Khalifa with a new, and relatively modern, addition to his power base. Major actors in this sector were able to increase their wealth through government and public sector enterprise contracts or licenses largely on basis of their political loyalty to Khalifa personally, rather than through reliance on their tribal or sectarian backgrounds. Some entrepreneurs considered not sufficiently loyal lost already awarded contracts.

Through offshore banking, one of Khalifa's pet projects, Bahrain became an important regional banking and financial center. He also initiated many development projects, including the construction of several new townships that helped improve living conditions for low- and middle-income families, thus eliminating one major source of discontent. The expanding economy also reduced rates of unemployment in the country, particularly among university graduates, and led to improving levels of wages for the local labor force.

"Stability" and the Security Apparatus

Khalifa's concerns for maintaining political "stability" as a requirement for business expansion may explain the high priority he gave to improving the capabilities of the internal security apparatus. Within the first decade of the oil boom allocations for security and defense increased from US$22.5 million in 1974 to US$236.4 million in 1983, or from 11 to 20 percent of total government expenditures. Empowered by the state security decree of 1974 and by several amendments to the 1976 Penal Code, the security apparatus continued to expand, becoming a formidable bulwark of the regime. For these improvements Khalifa relied on the service of Colonel Ian Henderson, a former British colonial officer in Kenya. The two worked closely together from 1966 until Henderson's forced retirement following the accession of Shaykh hamad bin salman al khalifa as emir in 1999.

The unrestricted powers enjoyed by Henderson, particularly after 1975, led to a virtual permanent state of emergency, pushing all forms of political opposition underground. Various regional and international human rights watchdogs have amply reported on state violations of human rights, including torture and incarceration of political opponents for years without trial. Other measures included withholding or withdrawing the mandatory state "certificate of good behavior" from job seekers, limiting to one year the validity of passports issued to students, and banning students from returning to their universities abroad. Khalifa's detractors blame his authoritarian rule and continued influence for the slow pace of political reforms initiated by his nephew upon becoming emir in 1999. Khalifa continues to advocate "a concept of democracy which does not compromise national interests," noting that "the United States and Britain adopted laws curbing civil liberties, despite their deep-rooted democratic heritage" (Gulf Daily News). Critics note that on 20 November 2006 the prime minister issued an edict banning strikes at "vital facilities" including all means of transport involving people or merchandise, telecommunications, electricity, water, bakeries, educational establishments and oil and gas facilities.


Perspectives on Khalifa are inevitably mixed. He is viewed by Bahraini opposition groups as the leading figure within the ruling family's old guard that opposes political reform. According to a 2002 study conducted in Bahrain for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), a quasipublic American nonprofit organization, Khalifa is "viewed with distinctly less affection than his nephew, the king. He is viewed as an effective yet cold, businesslike person—responsible both for the modernization of the country over the last generation and for the fact that the country has not found a way to equitably distribute the benefits of that modernization. Usually with a bit of nervous laughter, suggesting they would not have dared voice this thought a few months or years ago, people in several of the groups say his time has passed and he should retire" (Melia).


Among local and foreign business communities, Khalifa is appreciated as an astute businessman who has attracted some major banks and investment houses to invest in Bahrain development projects. He is also seen as a pillar of stability whose policies have made Bahraini economy "the fastest growing economy in the Arab world [with] the freest economy in the Middle East according to the 2006 Index of Economic Freedom," according to the Bahrain Economic Development Board website.

Another enduring legacy of Khalifa bin Salman is Bahrain's modern government structure. While marred by corruption and nepotism, it is by all accounts a functioning and reliable bureaucracy. Khalifa's personal control of the internal security apparatus between 1966 and 2001 will assure that his name will continue to be associated with the unrestricted abuse of power and systematic violation of human rights, particularly during the 1990s.


Hamad, Tawfeeq al-. Khalifa bin Salman—A Man and the Rise of a State. Manama: Scientific Creativity Center, 1997.

Human Rights Watch. Routine Abuse, Routine Denial: Civil Rights and the Political Crisis in Bahrain. New York: HRW Publications, 1997.

"Major Development Projects." Bahrain Economic Development Board. Available from

Melia, Thomas O. "The People of Bahrain Want to Participate in the King's Political Reform Project: A Report on Focus Groups Conducted in the Kingdom of Bahrain, July 2002." National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Available from

"Unity Call," Gulf Daily News, 21 September 2006. Available from

                                          Abdulhadi Khalaf

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Al Khalifa, Khalifa Bin Salman (1935–)

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