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Bahrain's security hawk Prime Minister Khalifa dies, succeeded by crown prince

DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain’s Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, the world’s longest serving prime minister who repeatedly put down opposition unrest during a half century in power, has died, with the country’s crown prince appointed in his place.

FILE PHOTO: Bahrain's Prime Minister Prince Khalifa Bin Salman al-Khalifa attends a meeting during the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) summit at the Foreign Ministry in Bangkok, Thailand, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

The new premier, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, 51, has been viewed as the ruling family’s leading proponent of social and economic reforms, although some changes were blocked in years past by family hardliners.

Bahrain has long seen confrontation between the Sunni Muslim ruling family and an opposition with roots in the country’s Shi’ite majority, with political stalemate entrenched by a security crackdown in recent years.

Sheikh Khalifa, a dominant figure in the Gulf Arab kingdom’s politics, passed away on Wednesday morning at the Mayo Clinic in the United States, Bahrain’s state news agency said.

Khalifa, 84, the uncle of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, had served as prime minister since independence from Britain in 1971. The al-Khalifa family has reigned since 1783.

Khalifa’s stern response to pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011 -- and criticism of similar unrest across the Arab world -- underlined what for many was the defining characteristic of his career: defence of dynastic rule.

The new premier, Crown Prince Salman, 51, is part of a younger generation of Gulf rulers seen as pushing social and economic reforms, although so far this has not been accompanied in the region by a political thaw.

“While he will be cautious and careful about keeping his family and neighbours onside, the king’s clear vote of confidence - and the ability to appoint his own cabinet - could make this a moment for bold steps to heal the political divide,” said Jane Kinninmont, a British-based expert on Bahrain at the European Leadership Network.

Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, said Sheikh Khalifa’s passing would be welcomed by many in Bahrain’s political opposition.

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“He is regarded as one of the chief architects of an increasingly repressive state,” Jones said.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a prominent Bahraini rights campaigner exiled in Britain, said Sheikh Khalifa had masterminded “brutal repression” of the opposition during the 1990s and oversaw the crackdown on the 2011 uprising.

Leaders from neighbouring countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, offered condolences to King Hamad and paid tribute to Sheikh Khalifa.

“The late Prince Sheikh Khalifa... was a man of historic stature whose name was associated with the modern transformation of Bahrain and the Arabian Gulf,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Twitter. He added: “He was a man of solid positions and principles.”

Human rights groups have criticised Bahrain’s Western allies, notably the United States and Britain, for often remaining silent about allegations of human rights abuses against the Shi’ite majority.

The two countries have a particularly high level of influence in Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based and where Britain’s Royal Navy has a major facility.

In August, Sheikh Kahlifa left the kingdom for what official media called at the time “a private visit abroad”.

Earlier this year he spent time in Germany for unspecified medical treatment, returning to Bahrain in March.

The burial ceremony will take place upon the repatriation of his body and the funeral will be limited to a specific number of relatives, Bahrain’s state news agency said.

Official mourning has been declared for a week and government ministries and departments will close for three days starting Thursday.

Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Writing by Maha El Dahan and Lisa Barrington; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff