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Bahrain bears a distinction no other Gulf country can claim. As initially instituted by the British and maintained in its amended constitution of 2002, the monarchy practices primogeniture: Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the eldest son of the current king, will follow his father, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, as ruler, unless the king should appoint another of his sons successor.
Bahrain also claims another distinction: The head of its government and uncle to the king, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, is the longest-serving prime minister in the world. This disconnect between de jure and de facto power has long played out within the governance of the country as the crown prince and prime minister have competed for control over government policy. Recent news emerging from the kingdom suggests that this particular competition may be reaching its endgame. Yet the emergence of other royal rivals to the crown prince from within the security services and his own immediate family promise to keep things interesting.
The Rivalry between the Prime Minister and Crown Prince
Salman bin Hamad became heir apparent when his father assumed the throne in 1999. His ability to influence policy was initially blocked by his great uncle, the prime minister, who ran the government and maintained extensive connections in society, especially within the business community. Khalifa bin Salman’s brand of retail politics conflicted sharply with the more technocratic mien of the young crown prince who was eager to implement economic and political reforms under his father’s leadership. This contest was tipped in the crown prince’s favor in 2008 when his father endorsed the elevation of the Economic Development Board, a quasi-governmental body established by the crown prince and entrusted with strategic economic planning, over the heads of the government ministries led by the prime minister.
This advantage was short lived, overturned by a much larger disruption: the 2011 protests that brought hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis to the streets. The crown prince’s association with political reforms and his inability to deliver a political compromise weakened his political position. In contrast, the prime minister survived the demands for his resignation and proved the value of his long-standing connections with Saudi Arabia, which sent elements of its national guard, as part of a larger Gulf Peninsula Shield Force, to defend the monarchy.
Over time the crown prince worked his way back into the policy arena, being formally appointed deputy prime minister in 2013 and resuming his influence over the economic portfolio. His position has been strengthened through his close relationship with the leadership of the United Arab Emirates, which has augmented its presence on the island through development aid and infrastructure projects. Emirati influence is also apparent in new Bahraini policy orientations that promote national unity while diminishing the influence of religious movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Perhaps sensing his authority and legacy through his own descendants slipping, the prime minister has fought back, adopting controversial measures that challenge the more divisive elements of the kingdom’s new domestic and regional posture. In May, Khalifa bin Salman undertook a reciprocal visit to an influential Shia cleric, Abdullah al-Ghurayfi, who has been trying to play a mediating role between the Shia community and the government since the dissolution of the leading Shia Islamist political society, al-Wefaq, and exile of leading Shia cleric Isa Qassim. This olive branch was immediately shot down by Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior, which issued a statement criticizing Ghurayfi. A second, even more headline-grabbing, gambit came that same month when Khalifa bin Salman called Qatar’s emir with a Ramadan greeting, a notable break in the rift sustained since the boycott of the country by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. This was countered by a statement from the minister of cabinet affairs stating that the prime minister’s action did not in fact represent the official position of the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Khalifa bin Salman’s maneuvers demonstrate a bid for greater relevance within Bahrain’s shifting politics. But they also reflect the eclipse of the more personal retail politics practiced by the prime minister as his traditional approach is overtaken by new actors using new methods: media savvy young princes and more ideological rivals within the security state.
Younger Siblings Seek the Limelight
On October 17, King Hamad elevated another one of his sons, appointing Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa national security advisor. This marks yet another step up for a young man who has been on the rise and much in the news: from his active presence on social media to active war fronts in Yemen.
The 32-year-old son of the king’s second wife, Nasser bin Hamad’s instincts are more populist than his older brother’s, and he has thrived in arenas amenable to that profile. He emerged in the midst of the 2011 crisis as a new conduit for generational ambition, heading youth-centered initiatives as the chairman for the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports. His popular appeal was burnished by his social media presence, which followed him through the celebration of his wedding to the daughter of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikha bin Mohammed bin Rashid; his participation in endurance sports; and on the front lines of Yemen in his role as commander of Bahrain’s royal guard.
His younger brother, Khaled bin Hamad al-Khalifa, has followed a similar path, serving as special force commander to the royal guard and deputy chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, and replacing his brother as head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee. He raised some eyebrows with his role in the removal of the grandson of the prime minister as head of the basketball association earlier in October.
Nasser bin Hamad’s promotion as national security advisor should raise his profile in strategic matters. This is an arena into which he has only recently emerged as the preferred emissary for his father on sensitive missions such as outreach to influential Jewish communities in support of Bahrain’s religious tolerance agenda. His royal trajectory certainly contrasts with the heir apparent, Salman bin Hamad, both in his comfort with military rather than technocratic milieus, as well as his reception in Shia communities where the crown prince has often been the primary royal intermediary while Nasser bin Hamad has built a reputation as a hard-liner. On security issues, then, this places him more in line with the third wing of influential Bahraini royals, the Khawalid.
The New Dimensions of Royal Competition
While the sons of Hamad appear to have the upper hand in the longstanding rivalry with the prime minister, both camps have ceded substantial governmental territory and influence to a third faction within the ruling family. The Khawalid – descendants of Khaled, the brother of the turn of the century emir, Isa bin Ali al-Khalifa – have become important power brokers within the security apparatus and royal court. Led by Commander in Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force Khalifa bin Ahmed and his brother, Khaled bin Ahmed, who serves as royal court minister, the Khawalid have consistently championed a position suspicious of Shia empowerment within the kingdom. Their influence has grown in the wake of the 2011 uprising and crackdown and with the elevation of security concerns focused on Iran.
As royal circles jostle for influence, this partitioning of roles is likely to continue into the next generation. While the prime minister’s influence appears on the wane, the distinct portfolios divided among the sons of the king and the Khawalid will bring a new dimension to the Al Khalifa ruling family power sharing and internal competition into the future.
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Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More