Al Khalifa, Hamad Bin Isa (1950–)

Al Khalifa, Hamad Bin Isa (1950–) –

Shaikh 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.

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.

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.

From  my contribution (2007)  to   The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa   Thomson Gale,F armington Hills, Michigan