Kuwait’s Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah sworn in as new emir

Kuwait’s Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah was sworn in Wednesday as the ruling emir of the tiny oil-rich country, propelled to power by the death of his half-brother after a long career in the security services.
Wednesday 30/09/2020
A 2014 file photo shows Kuwait’s Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah attending the closing session of the 25th Arab Summit in Bayan Palace in Kuwait City. (AP)
A 2014 file photo shows Kuwait’s Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah attending the closing session of the 25th Arab Summit in Bayan Palace in Kuwait City. (AP)

DUBAI –Kuwait’s Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah was sworn in Wednesday as the ruling emir of the tiny oil-rich country, propelled to power by the death of his half-brother after a long career in the security services.

At age 83, Sheikh Nawaf is not expected to deviate from the diplomatic path charted by his predecessor, the late Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. But his accession touched off speculation about who will become the next crown prince in the country known for its lively elected parliament and relative independence in the neighbourhood of Gulf Arab monarchies.

The late Sheikh Sabah, 91, was set to make his final journey to Kuwait later on Wednesday, his coffin flying back from Rochester, Minnesota, home of the flagship campus of the Mayo Clinic where he had been receiving medical treatment after surgery.

A general view of Kuwait’s Parliament meeting during which Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al-Sabah was sworn in as the country’s new emir, in Kuwait City, September 30. AFP
A general view of Kuwait’s Parliament meeting during which Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al-Sabah was sworn in as the country’s new emir, in Kuwait City, September 30. AFP

Although his funeral would typically draw tens of thousands of mourning Kuwaitis and scores of foreign leaders and dignitaries, because of the coronavirus pandemic the burial will be a private service restricted to relatives, said Kuwait’s state-run news agency, KUNA.

The breadth and depth of emotion over the loss of Sheikh Sabah was reflected in condolence messages that streamed in from countries on opposite ends of regional feuds, from Saudi Arabia to Iran.

Sheikh Sabah earned a reputation as a shrewd, unshakeable leader who helped steer his country through the 1990 Iraqi invasion, crashes in global oil markets and upheavals in parliament and on the streets.

World leaders and Kuwaitis alike have hailed the legacy of the late emir, architect of the nation’s modern foreign policy and mediator in some of the worst crises to grip the Middle East.

Kuwait entered a solemn 40-day period of mourning on Wednesday to commemorate the leader’s life and death.

Sheikh Nawaf took office as the new ruler of Kuwait in the parliament building before rows of applauding lawmakers, clad in their traditional white robes and surgical masks because of the pandemic.

Sheikh Nawaf was visibly emotional as he addressed the National Assembly. He bowed slightly, touching his hands to his head in a sign of respect. With a low voice, he delivered a short address offering tribute to his late half-brother and promising to “preserve the security of Kuwait.”

“I promise you that I will do my best and everything in my power to preserve Kuwait, its security and stability, and to ensure the dignity and well-being of the people,” said Sheikh Nawaf, reading from prepared remarks.

He called for unity against the challenges that face the region, and committed himself to Kuwait’s “democratic approach” in the address before lawmakers.

“Kuwait throughout its history has seen serious and tough challenges, which we have succeeded in overcoming through cooperating together,” he said.

“Today, our dear country also faces risky circumstances and challenges that there is no way to bypass except through unity.”

Kuwait has a lively political arena with a fully elected parliament that enjoys wide legislative powers and can vote ministers out of office.

The country’s challenges are manifold. Gridlock in parliament has blocked the passage of a public debt law needed to raise $65 billion and mitigate the country’s looming liquidity crisis.

A major credit agency last week downgraded Kuwait for the first time in its history, citing the government’s ineffective economic management and swelling budget deficit.

Plunging oil prices amid the coronavirus pandemic have robbed the wealthy country of cash. The economy still feeds on petrodollars and has been slow to diversify.

After the ceremony, Sheikh Nawaf, in his flowing robe, strode into a black Mercedes as groups of soldiers delivered a crisp salute.

Sheikh Nawaf’s ascent to the throne bookended a political career that spanned from interior minister to defense minister, dating back to 1991 when US troops and their allies invaded Kuwait.

Sheikh Nawaf briefly served as social affairs and labour minister after the war, then as the deputy chief of Kuwait’s National Guard and again as interior minister.

He became the crown prince under Sheikh Sabah in February 2006, but was not known for making any major political decisions while serving as crown prince. The sheikh was educated in Kuwaiti schools and is married with four sons and one daughter.

He is popular within the ruling Al-Sabah family and is reported to have been a consensus choice for ruler. He also enjoys a reputation for modesty and has largely maintained a low profile.

Major policy changes are not expected during his reign, even after the Gulf underwent a seismic shift with Kuwait’s neighbours, the UAE and Bahrain, opting to establish relations with Israel.

While his taking the reins was prescribed by Kuwait’s constitution, the succession plan remains uncertain.

The late Sheikh Sabah came to power in 2006 by jumping a traditional order of alternating rule between two branches of the royal family, when parliament voted to oust his predecessor, the ailing Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, just nine days into his rule.

Now Sheikh Nawaf has inherited the task of appointing a new crown prince. Kuwait stands out in the region for the power of its parliament, which retains the right to reject the emir’s first choice.

Kuwait’s constitution stipulates that the ruler should be a descendant of the nation’s founder, Mubarak al-Sabah, but the throne has alternated between the descendants of his sons, Salem and Jaber, for four decades.

Contestants for the newly vacated role of crown prince include Sheikh Sabah’s son and former deputy Prime Minister Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti political heavyweight.

“Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed should be viewed more as a caretaker than as a watershed new leader,” said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Behind the scenes, however, younger princes would likely continue to compete to succeed him.”

Kuwait’s chances for economic reform and reputation for neutrality in a turbulent region hang in the balance, said global risk consultancy group Stratfor.