The al-Khalifa family dominated Bahrain before independence and has continued to do so. The political career of Sheikh Isa (Hamad's father) began in June 1953, when he represented his father at the coronation of King Faisal of Iraq. In 1956, after a series of disturbances in Bahrain's capital city of Manama, Isa was named to head the municipal council by his father, the ruling emir. He subsequently held a variety of administrative posts, including a position on Bahrain's administrative council and president of the education committee.
Isa's leadership status was formally recognized on 31 January 1958 when he became the designated heir apparent to his father. Over the next two years, because of his father's failing health, Crown Prince Isa came to play an increasingly important role in governing Bahrain. He also became the acting head of the al-Khalifa family council. This council, which is still in existence today, consists of the senior members of the al-Khalifa family and is primarily responsible for family matters, including disbursement of oil profits and other favors among members of the clan and their associates. The al-Khalifa council confirmed Isa as the new ruler of Bahrain on 16 December 1961. He subsequently guided Bahrain through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil crisis and the Gulf War, steering a largely pro-Western course. Isa then delegated authority to his brother the prime minister, and to his son Hamad. As commander in chief of the Bahraini Defense Force and National Guard, Hamad played a prominent role in suppressing internal dissent in the 1990s.
Sheikh Isa presided over the transformation of Bahrain into a modern society, but he continued some of the traditional practices common in the Bahraini society for centuries. One of these is a public assembly known as the Majlis . At these assemblies, anyone, regardless of their social or citizenship status, can directly petition the emir concerning any issue and ask him to personally adjudicate the matter. This traditional tribal practice, which is common in many Gulf states, provides citizens with direct access to the ruler. Sheikh Hamad attended the Majlis of his father, seeing it as an opportunity to learn traditional storytelling and to gain an understanding of the factors that contribute to victory and defeat, success and failure. When Sheikh Isa died suddenly in 1999, Sheikh Hamad became emir.