The death of Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah comes at a difficult time for the small Gulf country. Economic crisis, disputes within the ruling family and of course Covid-19 mean that the Emir’s successor takes power at a critical moment.
Following complications from surgery in early July, the fourteen-year-long Emir of Kuwait was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to receive acute medical care. Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, however, never recovered and on 29 September the 91-year-old Emir died with his half-brother Sheikh Meshaal, sons Nasser and Hamad and several of his grandchildren by his side.
Within hours of his death being announced, his other half-brother the 83-year-old Crown Prince, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah was declared Emir by the Amiri Diwan, the Kuwaiti royal palace. Early the next day, in accordance with the Kuwaiti Constitution, the new Emir swore an oath in Kuwait’s National Assembly pledging his allegiance to the citizens of Kuwait.
Unlike his predecessor, Sheikh Nawaf stood above domestic politics
Sheikh Nawaf has played a relatively minor role in public politics since being appointed Crown Prince in 2006. He is, however, an experienced and well-respected member of the ruling family. In 1962, Sheikh Nawaf became governor of the Hawalli Governorate in the east of the country, a position which he held for 16 years. He went on to hold a string of high-profile positions in the ministries of Interior, Defence, Social Affairs and Labour, as well as serving as a deputy chief of the National Guard for nine years before becoming the second in line to the Emir.
All four of Sheikh Nawaf’s four sons – Ahmad, Faisal, Abdullah, and Salem - have had long careers as high-ranking officers in the various branches of the Kuwaiti security services. Faisal is currently Assistant Undersecretary for Public Security, and Abdullah retired in January after serving a long stint as Deputy Chief of Staff in the Kuwait Army. All four have chosen to remain outside formal politics, declining cabinet positions in December 2019. Sheikh Nawaf’s eldest son, Ahmed, has been the Governor of Hawalli Governorate since August 2014 after retiring from the Ministry of Interior as an assistant undersecretary.
In late September this year, Sheikh Nawaf’s youngest son Salem became head of the State Security Service, having previously also served as an assistant undersecretary in the Ministry of Interior from 2018. The move was meant to symbolise the position’s neutrality after conflict between members of the ruling family, spilled over into the service. The dispute over the wiretapping of important officials, activists, and journalists led to the removal of the director general Talal Al-Saqr and seven other top officers.
Unlike his predecessor, Sheikh Nawaf stood above domestic politics, avoiding public speeches, and informal gatherings. He has also remained at a distance from the political infighting that has surfaced in Kuwaiti and regional press over the last decade and did not make any major political decisions while Crown Prince.
In many ways this benefits the country during turbulent and uncertain times, as Sheikh Nawaf is the true custodian Emir, a ruler completely unhindered with negative public press. He has not been implicated in any of the previous scandals that engulfed the former Prime Ministers’ Sheikh Nasser Mohammad Al Sabah or Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al Sabah over corruption and cash-for-influence cases. He can, therefore, provide both Kuwait’s political elite and its public with a much-needed fresh start.
Kuwait today stands at a crossroads.
This is not to say that he is completely unbiased. He was a staunch supporter of the previous ruler remaining a member of the Al Jaber branch of the family, following Sheikh Saad Abdullah Al Salem’s abdication on health grounds after only nine day as Emir in 2006.
Since the time of Mubarak the Great, who ruled Kuwait from 1896 to 1915, tradition has held that power must alternate between the family branches of the Al Salem and Al Jaber branches. The impact of this decision still reverberates in the halls of power in Kuwait today as Nawaf’s succession broke with this long-established practice as he and his half-brother Sheikh Sabah both came from the Al Jaber branch. Recent decades have seen Al Salem branch become marginalised from the country’s highest offices, although they remain a powerful force in the army and within the ruling family itself as decision makers of potential heirs.
Sheikh Nawaf’s priorities for economic reform may differ from those of his predecessor. He is known to not be a strong advocate of large-scale development projects or the diversification of the state, preferring the evolution of the current state-centric model. This approach is readily accepted by a population not happy with the idea of reducing large subsidies.
The next major step includes appointing a new crown prince, which is likely to indicate the future direction of the country. The two main contenders are Sheikh Nawaf’s other half-brother Sheikh Mishaal Al Ahmad currently deputy chief of the National Guard, and Sheikh Nasser Sabah, the son of the Amir, considered a reformer and the popular choice. Other potential contenders by lineage are Mohammad Al Salem Al Sabah the former foreign minister, Sheikh Mansour bin Ahmad Al Sabah, current deputy minister and Minister of Defence and Nasser Mohammad Al Sabah, the former prime minister and palace advisor. None of these other choices seem palatable to both the Kuwaiti public, the parliament, the merchant family elite, and senior ruling family officials – the four most important elements when considering succession.
Kuwait today stands at a crossroads. The country is caught in a fiscal crisis caused by low oil prices, illiquidity in their sovereign wealth fund, and the heavy burden of salaries and subsidies, which make up over 70% of the annual budget. The poor economic outlook has been also compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although the new Emir has legally entitled to pick a crown prince up to a year after this appointment, he is likely to pick a new candidate with the next 30 to 40 days, as a signal of unity and the governments continuing operations in the current crisis. All-important parliamentary elections, scheduled for the end of November this year, make the selection and direction of the country even more important. Especially given that parliament is continuing to obstruct plans for a public debt programme to fill the 20-billion-Kuwaiti-dinar gap (approximately €55.5 billion) in the annual budget for 2020/2021.
Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto, and an economic analyst focusing on political economy, food logistics, and labour law in Kuwait and the wider Gulf region.