Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who served as Bahrain’s prime minister since 1971, has died at the age of 84, the royal court announced on Wednesday.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is in mourning for the late premier, who died at the Mayo Clinic hospital in the US state of Minnesota, the court said, according to the official BNA news agency.
The funeral can proceed once his body arrives home. Only a limited number of relatives will be allowed to attend.
The king ordered a week of national mourning and flags to be flown at half-mast. Work at government departments will be suspended for three days starting on Thursday.
Hamad appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman, as Prime Minister, according to a statement issued on Wednesday evening. Salman has been the deputy premier since 2013.
Khalifa, the uncle of King Hamad, had served as prime minister for almost half a century, since the Sunni Muslim-led island kingdom declared independence from Britain in 1971.
Khalifa criticized the unrest across the Arab world a decade ago that became known as the Arab Spring. Many protesters demanded more democracy in their countries and wanted to dismantle the hereditary ruling elite.
Protests also erupted in Bahrain in 2011, demanding wider reforms from the ruling Sunni family.
But like the uprisings in other parts of the region, the Bahrain protest movement was eventually quelled by the government, in this case with the help of Saudi Arabia.
Writing on Twitter, Middle East politics expert Mark Owen Jones described Khalifa as “a ruthless defender of the status quo in Bahrain.”
“He was an iconic figure of the ruling family, but his death will unlikely be mourned by many of Bahrain’s opposition who have long seen him as one of the chief architects of a repressive state,” Jones said.
Khalifa’s influence grew after the country gained its independence, especially in regard to its internal security, he said, adding that he had driven the repression of the Bahraini opposition and Shia population.
Khalifa was responsible for ordering the deportations of Bahraini citizens to Iran in the 1980s, as well the mass arrest of Shiite citizens, Jones added.
Bahrain is a partner of a Saudi-led bloc that broke diplomatic and transportation links with Qatar in June 2017, allegedly over its support for terrorist groups, an accusation that Doha has denied.
Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed deals to normalize ties with Israel in September. Bahrain, a close US ally, hosts its navy’s 5th Fleet.