DUBAI (Dispatches) -- Bahrain’s veteran prime minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa quashed repeated opposition unrest in almost half a century in office and was a fierce critic of the Arab Spring, saying it had brought Arabs only "death, chaos and destruction”.
The world’s longest-serving prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa died on Wednesday in Mayo Clinic hospital in the United States, Bahrain’s state news agency said.
Running Bahrain day-to-day since 1971, Sheikh Khalifa was seen for decades as the dominant personality in the regime, a foe of Iran, friend of Saudi Arabia and defender of the state’s Al Khalifa dynasty.
Denounced by the mainly Shia Muslim opposition as a leading barrier to reform in the minority-ruled kingdom, Sheikh Khalifa advocated a tough response to public protest that saw thousands of opposition activists jailed. Critics say many were tortured or mistreated in detention.
Prime Minister since Bahrain’s independence from Britain, Sheikh Khalifa, 84, the uncle of King Hamad, routinely dismissed the opposition’s description of him as the man most responsible for recurrent deadlock in political reform efforts.
He told Germany’s Der Spiegel in 2012: "Believe me, if my position alone were the reason for the unrest, then I would have already stepped down from my office last year. But this is just a further excuse from the opposition.”
In response to a remark that he had served an unusually long time, he told the magazine: "So what? Democratic systems are very different ... Why can’t we also be different?”
Bahrain, an ally of fellow monarchy Saudi Arabia and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has seen periodic unrest since demonstrators took to the streets in February 2011 to call for greater democracy. Many also called for Sheikh Khalifa’s resignation.
Authorities quelled the 2011 protests and Sheikh Khalifa said those behind the uprising were terrorists backed be Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, charges they vehemently denied.
The Bahrain opposition complains of discrimination against Shis Muslims in areas such as work and public services, and demands a constitutional monarchy with a government chosen from within a democratically-elected parliament.
Sheikh Khalifa’s stern response to pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011 -- and criticism of similar unrest across the Arab world -- underlined what for many was the defining characteristic of his career, namely a stalwart defense of dynastic rule.
An international inquiry said in November 2011 that 35 people died in Bahrain’s revolt, but the opposition says the real figure much higher.
Following the uprising, mass trials became commonplace and scores of people were imprisoned including leading opposition figures and human rights activists. Many others fled abroad.
Critics said the prime minister bore responsibility for security force abuses in 2011 alleged by rights groups, because these appeared to be systematic behavior by the state.
Reconciliation talks between the authorities and the opposition failed to defuse tensions, and mistrust between the opposition and the Al Khalifa remains high.
In 2016 a court dissolved the main opposition group Al-Wefaq, accusing it of helping to foster violence and terrorism, in an escalation of a crackdown on dissent.
As prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa ran daily affairs of state under the late Emir Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who died in 1999, and under his successor King Hamad.
He stood firm against a four-year bout of unrest in 1994, sending thousands of activists to jails. The protests, demanding political and economic reforms, abated in 1998.
He also cultivated good ties with Arab states. But in June 2017 Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and accuses its neighbors of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.
Sheikh Khalifa suffered a serious heart attack in 1985. After a second heart attack in July 1988, he underwent a triple by-pass operation in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
He received medical treatment in Germany several times in 2020.