BEIRUT, Lebanon — Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who ran Bahrain’s government during nearly five decades as prime minister while staunchly defending the ruling dynasty and quashing opposition, died on Wednesday, according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency. He was 84.
Prince Khalifa, a brother of Bahrain’s previous monarch and uncle of its current king, was the world’s longest-serving prime minister at the time of his death at the Mayo Clinic in the United States.
The state news agency did not provide a cause of death, but he had previously suffered at least two heart attacks and undergone heart surgery.
Prince Khalifa was known by friends and foes alike as a traditionalist who ran the day-to-day affairs of Bahrain’s government since the country gained independence from Britain in 1971. That period saw steady economic development and a deepening alliance with the United States. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.
The island nation of 1.5 million people in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has also been shaken by occasional eruptions of popular discontent, mostly among its Shiite Muslim majority, who accuse its Sunni Muslim rulers of systemic discrimination.
Prince Khalifa often stood up for his long tenure at the head of Bahrain’s government. When he was asked about it in 2012, he told reporters for the German magazine Der Spiegel, “So what?”
“Democratic systems are very different,” he said. “Why can’t we also be different?”
In the same interview, he criticized the Arab Spring uprisings including the one in Bahrain, which erupted in 2011.
“This is not an ‘Arab spring,’” he said. “Spring is connected with flowers, happy people and love — not death, chaos and destruction.”
Late Wednesday, Bahrain announced that Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the king’s eldest son, would become the new prime minister. Prince Salman, 51, is also the deputy commander of Bahrain’s military.
Prince Khalifa was a son of the al-Khalifa dynasty that has ruled Bahrain since 1783, including during its time as a British protectorate before it gained independence in 1971.
His father, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, ruled Bahrain from 1942 to 1961, and Prince Khalifa shadowed him, learning the affairs of government.
Prince Khalifa’s brother, Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, took power in 1961 and continued as Bahrain’s emir after independence. While his brother served as the diplomatic and ceremonial head of state, Prince Khalifa became prime minister, giving him oversight of the government and economy.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 scared Bahrain’s leaders, who feared that its revolutionary Shiite ideology would take root in their own Shiite population and challenge their rule. In the 1980s, Bahrain said it had thwarted two pro-Iranian coup attempts.
In the 1990s, Bahrain’s Shiites rose up to demand economic development and political reforms, and Sheikh al-Khalifa championed efforts to quell the unrest by locking up thousands of people.
As Bahrain’s economy developed, Prince Khalifa was dogged by corruption allegations.
“I believe that Sheikh Khalifa is not wholly a negative influence,” an American diplomat wrote in 2004 in a cable released by WikiLeaks. “While certainly corrupt, he has built much of modern Bahrain.”
The diplomat called Prince Khalifa “a traditional Arab” and predicted that his conservatism would make him “a drag on the pace of reform.”
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, an opposition human rights monitor, said in a statement released on Wednesday that Prince Khalifa had “left behind a legacy of abuse and power.”
In 2017, Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in cutting diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposing a boycott on their tiny Gulf neighbor, accusing its of meddling in other countries’ affairs and supporting terrorism. The Qataris have denied those accusations.
Last month, Bahrain agreed to open diplomatic relations with Israel, making it the fourth Arab state to do so.
Prince Khalifa’s health had been declining for years, and he left Bahrain in August for what the government called at the time “a private visit abroad.”
His nephew declared a week of mourning, the state news agency said. Prince Khalifa will be buried after his body returns from abroad.