His dominance of the bureaucratic apparatus and the security organs made him the true ruler of the kingdom, over and above his dilettante brother, Emir Isa bin Salman al Khalifa, who was relegated to ceremonial tasks. The newly launched independence from the British Empire, won in 1971, soon frustrated the political aspirations of the opposition and instead preserved some of the most disturbing facets of the colonial era: Ian Henderson, a security adviser under the British mandate, continued to serve the purpose. same role under the close collaboration and collusion of Prime Minister Khalifa. Henderson, hardened in the savage repression of the Mau Mau in Kenya and nicknamed “the butcher of Bahrain”, is associated with the regime of terror and systematic violation of human rights established on the island.
Despite thwarting democratic opening, in the 1970s Salman was able to attract some politicians from different factions and prominent Shiite families to his cabinet. With intelligence and determination that even his enemies recognize him, Salman played a key role in the modernization of the country and in its economic diversification. It managed to turn Bahrain into the most important financial center in the region, replacing the destroyed Beirut of the civil war (later, in the 90s, it would be displaced by Dubai and Abu Dhabi). While the country strengthened its economy, the prime minister fattened its assets without dissimulation. Its wealth, impossible to control and to investigate, is also fertile ground for legend. In the exquisitely cynical words of the US ambassador to Bahrain in 2004, Ronald E Neumann (leaked by WikiLeaks) “I think Sheikh Khalifa is not entirely a negative influence. While certainly corrupt, it has helped build much of modern Bahrain. “
In the 1980s, after the triumph of the Iranian revolution and the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war, Khalifa took an openly hostile position against the Shiite population. Indiscriminate deportations of Bahraini citizens to Iran and mass arrests followed. This repressive wave was the personal decision of the Prime Minister, who acted against the opinion of his security adviser, the severe Ian Henderson, as Marc Owen Jones collects in his book Political Repression in Bahrain. The British researcher maintains that, contrary to the government narrative, the Iranian revolution did not originate in Bahrain any uprising or armed mobilization by the Shiite population that would justify the violent reaction of the government.
The social unrest caused by the repressive wave of the 1980s would explode in the form of an uprising in the 1990s, in which theoretically antagonistic forces converged: secular leftist, liberal and Shiite religious parties, united against the same enemy.
The repression of protests
Faced with the massive demonstrations that made the regime reel, three positions were rehearsed by the royal family’s trident: the prime minister played the bad cop trick, accusing the protesters of being Iranian terrorists and fifth columnists; the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, was the good cop who tried to negotiate a deal with the opposition parties and even went so far as to show his condolences for the first murdered protesters on state television. And the king, as a privileged spectator, seemed to watch the chess game from afar.
The Saudi tanks, supported by the police, the army and paramilitary gangs encouraged by the prime minister, carried out the counterrevolution with the same feudal mentality as the conquerors of the 18th century. Salmaniya hospital was turned into a military target. More than 40 doctors and other medical personnel were arrested, tortured and imprisoned, some accused of being part of terrorist groups.
The episode was so grotesquely sordid that traditional allied countries and preferred partners such as the United States (which has the headquarters of its V Fleet in Bahrain) and the United Kingdom were forced to demand the opening of an independent commission of inquiry. Colonel Mubarak bin Huwail was charged with torturing several Salmaniya doctors. After his acquittal, the prime minister went to visit him at his home and, in front of the cameras, thanked him for his services to Bahrain and blessed the judicial impunity: “We will not allow anyone to harm you. These laws cannot apply to you. No one can touch this link. Whoever applies these laws against you is applying them against us. We are one body ”.
What will happen in Bahrain when the crown prince, Salman, that “good cop” of 2011, is appointed the new prime minister? The opposition is cautious and skeptical of the island’s political evolution. Al Khawaja, in a telephone conversation from his exile in Denmark, points out that, unlike Khalifa, who believed in “the iron hand” as the maximum political weapon, the crown prince is more “pragmatic and in favor of giving crumbs to the population to that you feel comfortable, but without freedom ”. He warns against mirages: “Salman meets the profile of pretty boy of Western democracies, the young man raised in the West, apparently more open and tolerant, as they said at the time of Bashar al-Assad ”.
Marc Owen Jones doubts that the new appointment will have significant effects on the internal politics of the country, whose great actor will continue to be neighboring Saudi Arabia, on whom Bahrain depends economically, politically and militarily.
“Perhaps the worst is yet to come,” sums up another Bahraini activist who cannot give her name for security reasons. And, along the same lines, Khawaja points to a terrifying possibility: that the new change of chairs of more prominence to the youngest of the princes, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the athlete, president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, the promoter of the Bahrain McLaren cycling team and Bahrain Endurance13 triathlon team, and who recently wore the Córdoba CF jersey proud after the acquisition of the team by a Bahrain investment fund. The one who, in the days following the crushing of the riots in 2011, uttered on state television that phrase that sums up the political situation in Bahrain better than the entire article you just read: “Let a wall fall on the heads of those who they called for the fall of the regime. Be it an athlete, an activist or a politician. Bahrain is an island and you have no escape ”.