Kuwait’s succession set in motion but uncertainty over crown prince

Three contenders have emerged vying for the position: Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber, Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah, and Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed.
Thursday 01/10/2020
Kuwait’s new Emir Nawwaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah stands after taking the oath of office at the parliament, in Kuwait City, Kuwait, September 30. (REUTERS)
Kuwait’s new Emir Nawwaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah stands after taking the oath of office at the parliament, in Kuwait City, Kuwait, September 30. (REUTERS)

KUWAIT – Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah passed away at the age of 91, leaving Kuwait in the custody of Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who became the country's new emir after taking the oath of office Wednesday.

Sheikh Sabah left behind a divided family and a country suffering from the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.

The country also inherits a sizable budget deficit and an out-of-control parliament that has grown accustomed to impeding the government's work.

The emir’s death brought to the fore once more the issue of who will be the new crown prince in light of quarrels between several wings of the ruling family. These quarrels may push the National Assembly to resolve the issue and pick the new crown prince.

For some time, and as the departed emir’s health became a serious concern, the position of crown prince ended up at the centre of a family feud. Three contenders emerged vying for the position: Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber (81), one of the emir’s brothers who is deputy chief of the National Guard, Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah, the emir’s son and Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed, a former prime minister.

Sheikh Meshaal is known to possess a strong personality, which made him the target of a smear campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood, led by former MP Musallam al-Barrak. Brotherhood supporters circulated an audio recording by Barrak in which he described Meshaal al-Ahmad as “the head of the hidden government” in Kuwait.

The Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Turkey and Qatar, favours the departed emir’s son, Nasser al-Sabah, even though the latter is suffering from lung cancer for which he was treated two years ago in London.

Gulf political sources indicate that Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahd, a former government minister known for his proximity to Qatar, is among those who support Nasser al-Sabah. The latter at one point suggested rapprochement with Turkey and Iran as part of an ambitious project to put Kuwait on the “Silk Road." Ahmed al-Fahd participated in the social media campaign against his uncle, Sheikh Meshaal.

Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad is trying to take advantage of the strong opposition to Sheikh Meshaal and the objection of several regional parties to Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah in order to present himself as an acceptable compromise, especially as he is backed by a significant number of members of Kuwait's financial community.

Nasser al-Mohammad has recently been quick to deny any special ties to Iran, insisting that he has always had excellent relations with all the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially Saudi Arabia.

Gulf analysts believe the confusion surrounding the emir's succession, if not remedied immediately, may lead to a difficult internal situation, as the country battles twin economic and health crises and attempts to manage rapid regional developments on which its positions have been in limbo because of the former emir's health and uncertainty about transfer of power.

These analysts said that the late emir’s death came in a very tense geopolitical time, in which Iran appears ready to do anything, either directly or through its military and political influence, in order to retain the gains it achieved over two phases that followed the shrinking role of Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the war on Iraq that ensued from that invasion in 1991, which had prepared for its invasion by the United States in 2003.

Observers of Gulf affairs believe that Kuwait needs to quickly revise its Gulf policies in order to restore warmth to its relationship with various Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and to break away from the policy of standing in the middle that has resulted in estranging it from Riyadh more than ensconcing it as a mediator, a role often drummed up by Kuwaiti officials.

It is in fact because of Kuwait’s many mediating efforts in the crisis with Qatar that many people in the Gulf started believing that Kuwait was on Qatar’s side, especially since Doha made no effort to grant the Kuwaitis any concession, even if it was just a formality, to help their efforts succeed.

On Tuesday, Kuwait TV interrupted its official broadcast and began broadcasting Quranic verses before announcing the emir’s death.

Last July, the departed emir travelled to the United States to undergo medical treatment after having surgery. No details about the nature of his illness or the treatment he was receiving were revealed.

On July 18, Kuwait announced the transfer of some of the emir's powers to Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (83), after the emir was hospitalised.

Sheikh Sabah had a long and eventful political career and reign. It was during his reign that Kuwait and the whole region witnessed their most dangerous crisis, and his constant mediation efforts earned him the title of “the dean of diplomacy.”

Even before ascending to power, he spent decades in the corridors of diplomacy and politics under his half-brother, the late Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah and his cousin, the late Emir Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah.

Sheikh Sabah became emir of Kuwait at the beginning of 2006. He replaced Sheikh Saad, who was relieved from power just a few days after taking charge by the elected parliament due to his deteriorating health. Parliament handed power to the government, which was headed by Sheikh Sabah, who was later chosen as the Kuwaiti emir.

Sheikh Sabah was Kuwait's foreign minister for many years, and during his tenure, he became known as a trusted mediator by the countries of the region and the international community.

The late emir was born on June 16, 1929, the son of the great-grandson of Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah, the founder of modern Kuwait.

Al-Sabah family has been ruling Kuwait for 250 years and Sheikh Sabah was the 15th emir of Kuwait. He guided his country through the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the collapse of world markets and the successive crises within the Kuwaiti National Assembly and the government.

Despite his old age, the departed emir remained very much involved in the daily governance tasks and in regional and international politics. At the end of May 2019, for example, he attended three Gulf, Arab and Islamic summits in Mecca, each of which continued until the morning hours.

During these summits, he called for defusing regional crises and de-escalation in the Gulf while tensions were increasing between Iran and the United States, placing the region on the brink of war. The emir insisted that the countries of the region use their leverage and “strive to contain that escalation.”

Sheikh Sabah pursued an independent policy line, which helped fortify and refine his regional reputation, despite his country’s multiple crises.

The late emir assumed his first government post in 1962 at the age of 33 before becoming foreign minister the following year, a position he held for four decades. He then left government work for a few months and returned as foreign minister again.

In April 1990, a new government was formed in which he was not a member, after some Kuwaitis felt that his role during the Iraqi invasion lacked firmness. Two years later, he returned as minister in the next government that was born in October 1992.

The ambitious emir was then appointed prime minister in 2003, which brought him one step closer to assuming the reins of power.

As soon as he assumed the position of emir, he began to consolidate his influence at home. He dissolved parliament four months after assuming his new role, following a dispute between lawmakers and the government.