Doubts surround Kuwaiti leadership’s insistence on Gulf mediation

Sheikh Nawaf’s insistence on “national unity” reflects wariness about possible Brotherhood or Shia moves.
Wednesday 21/10/2020
Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (C) attends parliament session with Crown Prince Sheikh Mishaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (R) and Parliament Speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim (L), October 20. (AFP)
Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (C) attends parliament session with Crown Prince Sheikh Mishaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (R) and Parliament Speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim (L), October 20. (AFP)

KUWAIT –The speech given by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, on Tuesday, gave the impression that the new Kuwaiti leadership has apprehensions about the future. Sheikh Nawaf insisted in his speech on “national unity” in the face of challenges.

By contrast, the emir’s apprehensions about the fragility of the transition phase have not stopped the Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah from announcing the resumption of Kuwaiti mediation between Qatar and the boycotting Gulf states, which raises questions about Kuwait’s ability, in its current situation, to lead such a new initiative.

In a speech delivered before the National Assembly ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for next December 5, the emir of Kuwait called for national unity to face the challenges facing his country.

These elections come at a time when Kuwait, an OPEC member, is facing a liquidity crisis resulting from low oil prices and the fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the years, our national unity has proven to be our most powerful weapon in the face of challenges, dangers and crises,” said the Emir, who took power last month after the death of the former ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad.

“We affirm our continuation on the path of the late Emir, and we affirm our commitment to democracy, the constitution and the rule of law,” Sheikh Nawaf added at the opening ceremony of the fifth regular session at the end of the fifteenth legislative season of the National Assembly.

Followers of Gulf affairs were of the opinion that the emir’s speech could not conceal real concerns about the political situation in the country, considering the endless disagreements between the National Assembly and the government, the successive changes in the government, the many hearings and the controversies that usually accompany them.  All indicate that this “unique democracy in the Gulf” has turned into a spectacle marked by competition for power at the expense of Kuwait’s stability and by conflicting foreign agendas in the country.

Frequent disagreements between the cabinet and the parliament led to successive ministerial reshuffles and the dissolution of parliament more than once, which hindered efforts to promote investment and reform. The National Assembly, the oldest parliament in the Gulf region, has powers that allow it to reject draft laws and question ministers.

Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah attends the opening of the 5th regular session at the country’s National Assembly (parliament) in Kuwait City on October 20. (AFP)
Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah attends the opening of the 5th regular session at the country’s National Assembly (parliament) in Kuwait City on October 20. (AFP)

On Monday, the Kuwaiti council of ministers approved a draft decree to hold parliamentary elections on December 5, pending the emir’s approval. Analysts believe the emir’s insistence on national unity in his speech suggests that there is concern that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Shia might exploit the fragile context of power transition to attempt some political moves, whether by escalating their rhetoric and attempting to confuse the new government. They could also stir up new protests and pressure the emir and the government to make concessions to Iran, Qatar or Turkey in order to calm the situation.

The Muslim Brotherhood of Kuwait has taken advantage of the indulgence of successive governments to build up their influence, especially through charitable associations that collect donations and spend them on social projects and on media campaigns designed to strengthen the Brotherhood’s presence and sway on society or use them to finance the actions of a Brotherhood-affiliated bodies at home, in the region and elsewhere.

While the emir’s speech reflected the fragility of the country’s current context of leadership transition, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah talked about Kuwait’s desire to continue mediating between Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, on the other. The projected move appears to be inconsistent with the country’s fragile political conditions that the emir referred to in his speech, as well as with the economic crisis it is experiencing, which has top priority in the plans of the new government.

The Kuwaiti prime minister delivered a speech before the National Assembly in which he said that Kuwait will continue in its “endeavours to end the disagreement between brothers and support the Gulf Cooperation Council.”

“At the level of our work in the Gulf, we continue our goodwill endeavours to end the dispute that arose between the brothers, which has weakened our unity and harmed our gains, and we will continue to work to support the Gulf Cooperation Council,” he said.

Analysts raise questions about the possible repercussions of the new Kuwaiti leadership’s persistence in mediating between the two sides of the ongoing row and of its launching of a new initiative that might anger Saudi Arabia, at a time when Doha continues to escalate its media campaign against the boycotting countries. Moreover, Qatar has not made, neither now nor in the past, any concessions that would allow Kuwait to move and break the ice between Doha and Riyadh, which makes the Kuwaiti “new initiative” look like a mere show meant for Kuwaiti domestic political consumption.

The analysts also point out that the late emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah had pursued his mediation efforts despite the absence of any ingredients for its success because he counted on his special relationship with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The new emir, however, still needs time to build a relationship of trust of the scope that his predecessor had with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo.

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, had sent, through Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman, a written message to the new emir of Kuwait “related to the close fraternal relations between the two countries and ways to support and develop them,” in a proactive step to show support for the “mediation” process without making any concessions enabling the Kuwaitis to build a credible initiative.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had cut political, trade and transport ties with Qatar in mid-2017, accusing it of supporting extremist groups and cozying up to Iran. Doha denies the accusations and says the ban aims to undermine its sovereignty.