Remembering the Man Behind the Award
Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al-Kahlifa
Entrenched in the political, economic, and social affairs of his country for nearly four decades, His Highness the Late Amir Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa’s impact was deep and far-reaching. From 1961 to 1999, he shepherded the islands from a British protectorate to a modern nation with strong rule of law, a gleaming infrastructure, and the reputation for being an international banking and finance hub.
As an astute statesman, Shaikh Isa’s rule was characterised by his dedication to driving resources towards innovative and transformative ideas. What people remember most about him, however, is the remarkable charisma he showed in forging strong relationships and partnerships with people from all walks of life. Even after his death, he continues to serve as an inspirational man and ruler for all who know his story.
Early Life and Career
Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa was born in the village of Jasra on the 3rd of June 1933, he spent his younger years watching the complex interplay of politics in his father’s court. This real-life education proved indispensable for his future as ruler. As he was given more responsibility, he matured into a statesman with a natural feel for diplomacy and mediation. In 1961, he succeeded his father, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and within a few years was using his political acumen to negotiate Bahrain’s independence from Great Britain and to create his own government.
Architect of a Modern Nation
From his first actions as Amir of Bahrain, it was clear that Shaikh Isa intended to lay the foundations of a sovereign nation. By 1964, he proposed a series of innovative economic reforms, most important of which was the founding of the Bahrain Monetary Council. Within a year, the Council replaced the currency Bahrain shared with the Gulf Emirates with the independent Bahraini Dinar, allowing the state to begin building its distinctive and pioneering economy. In the late 1960s, Shaikh Isa pushed his vision of an independent Bahrain further. Under his direction, features of a government were put in places, such as the State Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs, which would develop into the indispensable cornerstones of a centralised government. Shaikh Isa’s reign was, in the most profound sense, an era of institution building. By the end of a year of independence, he announced the country’s first elections for a Constituent Assembly, which was charged with drafting a constitution for the fledgling nation. Amidst critiques that the Assembly would be partisan, the always-diplomatic Shaikh Isa reduced the number of appointed members to the Assembly to allow the people a greater say in the makeup of the important political body. By 1973, the draft constitution that gave legal rights to women, trade unions the right to organise, and mandated elections, was approved. The formation of a state can be tumultuous, but Shaikh Isa’s persistent attention to various factions and his tendency to take the moderate path ensured Bahrain’s emergence as a complete and unified nation. His bold and unprecedented initiatives to create a constitution and hold open elections still resonate in political discussions today.
Forging Economic and International Partnerships
In the early days of independence, Shaikh Isa created an advanced foreign policy focused on strong interconnectivity with the Middle East while opening up relations with the West. He was passionate about forming international allegiances and his dedication to doing so characterises his leadership of nearly four decades. His first act as the Amir of an independent nation was to apply for membership on Bahrain’s behalf to the United Nations and the Arab League.
His foreign policy led to Bahrain joining the mutually beneficial Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981. The GCC is comprised of Bahrain’s five neighbours: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the U.A.E. and Qatar, and aims to boost economic cooperation between members and ensure collective security. Shaikh Isa’s vision included an open and liberal economy which attracted foreign investment and helped the country progress into a multicultural and multi-faith society.
While Bahrain was the first place in the Middle East to strike oil -the year after Shaikh Isa was born -it was known that the country’s reserves were finite. With great foresight, Shaikh Isa made it a priority to diversify Bahrain’s economy into one based on trade, investment, banking, and services; a move which saw great prosperity during his reign and to this day. The Amir positioned Bahrain as the Gulf’s first post-oil economy, paving the way for the other Gulf States to make the same transition in the future.
The pinnacle of Shaikh Isa’s vision to diversify the economy and increase regional integration was the opening of the King Fahd Causeway in 1986. For over a decade, Shaikh Isa negotiated with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to construct a causeway linking the two countries. From the day it opened until today, the Causeway has proven to be a crucial aspect of Bahrain’s trade and tourism and a symbol of the strong relationship between the two Kingdoms.
Domestic economic growth
Shaikh Isa bin Salman’s reign also witnessed the inauguration of many factories and industries which boosted domestic economic growth and reduced local unemployment including:
1) Aluminium Bahrain (Alba) in 1971
2) Bahrain Flour Mills Company in 1972
3) Bahrain National Oil Company (BANOCO) in 1976
4) Eastern Asphalt and Mixed Concrete Company (EAMCO) in 1976
5) Arab Shipbuilding & Repair Yard (ASRY) in 1977
6) Bahrain National Gas Company (BANAGAS) in 1979
7) Iron Purification Factory (an affiliate of the Arab Company for Iron and Steel) in 1984
8) Gulf Aluminium Rolling Mill Company (GARMCO) in 1986
Social Welfare as a Priority
Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa was most known for the empathy and compassion he showed his people. Often going beyond the call of duty as a statesman, Shaikh Isa considered his role as a ruler to include personal interaction with his citizens. In keeping with this philosophy, he insisted on holding Majalises (open courts) in his palace in which anyone could approach him and share with the Amir his concerns, proposals, or petitions over coffee. To this day, many remember this practice as remarkable for a modern ruler and it earned the Amir considerable respect and loyalty around the world.
The humanitarian spirit of Shaikh Isa resonates the most in the progress Bahrain made in education, healthcare, and social welfare during his rule. One of his most prominent projects was to address the housing shortage in the country as the population boomed over the century. Comprehensive communities that dedicated housing to low-income families, such as Isa Town, still stand as a reminder of Shaikh Isa’s enthusiasm for improving the living standards of his people. Going beyond housing, he believed it was the government’s duty to provide free healthcare to citizens and founded the Salmaniya Medical Complex in 1978 and the Bahrain Defence Force Royal Medical Services Hospital the following year.
Shaikh Isa held education in high regard being a dedicated reader of poetry and literature and a patron of the arts himself. From early on in his reign, he set his sights on making Bahrain the intellectual capital of the Gulf. In cooperation with UNESCO and the United Nations Development Programme, the Amir opened the Higher Institute for Male Teachers in 1966 and the Higher Institute for Female Teachers in 1967.
Following the success of these two institutions, several other higher education centres were established under the Amir’s guidance: The Gulf Technical College (1968); now known as the Gulf Polytechnic College (1981), the Arabian Gulf University (1979); and the University of Bahrain (1986). In keeping with his aspirations to diversify Bahrain’s economy, Shaikh Isa also supported the founding of the Hotel and Catering Training Centre (1974), the College of Health Sciences (1976), and the University College of Art, Science and Education (1978).
During the Amir’s rule, Bahrain achieved the highest rate of literacy in the Arab world and provided its citizens with levels of social welfare and healthcare much higher than its wealthier neighbours. Because of his visionary initiatives, Shaikh Isa captured the imagination and admiration of his people and the world.
Shaikh Isa bin Salman enjoyed immersing himself in poetry and literature and engaging with politicians, intellectuals and artists. The late Amir dedicated his time to meeting Bahrain literary community and encouraging their work and accomplishments. During his reign, Bahrain was ranked first in the Arab region for producing acclaimed authors and published works. The number of titles published for just two of the numerous Bahraini writers at that time (1961-1999) reached around 1,486, covering different fields of knowledge. To this day, Bahraini nationals enjoy a reputation for being amongst the region most highly educated and cultured peoples.
Shaikh Isa bin Salman established the Higher Institute for Male Teachers in 1966 and the Higher Institute for Female Teachers a year later in cooperation with UNESCO and the United Nations Development Program.
Many schools, institutions, colleges, and universities were established in subsequent years, including:
- The Gulf Technical College (1968) which later became the Gulf Polytechnic College (1981)
- The Hotel and Catering Training Centre (1974)
- The College of Health Sciences, established under the supervision of the Ministry of Health (1976)
- The University College of Art, Science and Education (1978)
- The Arabian Gulf University (1979)
- The University of Bahrain (1986)
Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa (Mercy be upon him) passed away on the 6th of March 1999 at Al Sakhir Palace. During his 38 years of rule, his vision and policies transformed Bahrain into a modern nation with a high standard of living, a strong, diverse economy, and many allies around the world.
Shaikh Isa is remembered as a compassionate leader who cared deeply about the people of Bahrain and for preparing the country to face the challenges of the 21st Century. The Isa Award serves to commemorate this remarkable statesman who, above all else, will be remembered as a great humanitarian.