02 October 2020
Full Special Report: Kuwait
- Swift appointment of Emir Nawaf following predecessor’s death will ensure broad domestic and foreign policy continuation
- New emir will likely make limited concessions to parliament in coming months to secure approval of preferred candidate as crown prince
- Business operating environment will remain stable under new emir and is unlikely to be significantly impacted by eventual choice of crown prince
Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who ruled Kuwait since 2006, died on 29 September at the age of 91 after months of illness. Within hours, the cabinet named his half-brother, Crown Prince Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah as his successor, and he was sworn in as Kuwait’s sixteenth emir the next day. The government has declared a 40-day mourning period for former Emir Sabah, whose funeral was held on 30 September.
Kuwait: Emir of the State of Kuwait and Commander of the Kuwait Military Forces Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah died on 29 September 2020 at the age of 91
The former emir was widely respected, both on a domestic and regional level. His measured approach to managing tensions between Sunni and Shia communities in Kuwait has instilled a level of intercommunal harmony that is rare among Gulf countries, which has helped protect Kuwait’s broader stability and security. He also maintained a balanced relationship with Riyadh and Tehran, which enabled him to act as a trusted mediator in regional disputes, including between Doha and Saudi Arabia over the latter’s blockade of Qatar. The new emir had been crown prince since 2006 and was conferred greater constitutional authority to direct high-level policy in July, when his predecessor was transferred to the US for treatment.
Nawaf’s role as crown prince for 14 years and his involvement in governance, particularly as former Emir Sabah’s health declined, strongly indicates that he supported the previous emir’s agenda. He will therefore pursue broad policy continuation with regards to maintaining a balanced approach to Kuwait’s Sunni and Shia communities, anti-corruption efforts, economic development and labour reforms, including recent efforts to limit foreign workers as part of a longstanding “Kuwaitisation” policy. Nawaf is also committed to safeguarding the country’s role as a regional mediator and will uphold Kuwait’s balanced foreign policy, despite the likelihood of increased pressure from Riyadh and Washington for the country to assume a more hostile approach to Tehran. The US will also likely exert greater pressure on Kuwait to normalise ties with Israel, but the lack of domestic support for such a move will continue to prohibit this.
Nawaf will now have to select a new crown prince, and has a year to do so according to the constitution. His selection will be significant given that he is 82 years old and suffers from an unspecified illness. His candidate must be approved by parliament, and if MPs reject his choice, the emir would then be required to provide three names for parliament to vote on – a scenario which would be unprecedented.
The most likely candidates under consideration will include Nawaf’s brother, Mishal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. He is the deputy commander of the national guard and is regarded as an authoritative leader who is unwilling to compromise, which is likely to make him unpopular with opposition MPs. The former emir’s son and ex-defence minister, Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is also a potential candidate, though his dismissal as defence minister last year amid corruption allegations may have damaged his domestic image. Former Prime Minister Nasser al-Sabah is likely an attractive candidate in the current economic climate due to his business expertise and strong ties to domestic and foreign commercial elite. That said, he was forced to resign in 2011 after protesters stormed parliament, a legacy which would likely make him unpopular with many Kuwaitis. He is also regarded as having a strong relationship with Iran, which Islamist MPs would view as compromising the country’s ties with Saudi Arabia. The former foreign minister and ex-ambassador to the US, Mohammad Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, from the other branch of the royal family could become a potential candidate if major tensions within the emir’s family emerge over the decision-making process.
The emir’s preferred choice is likely his brother, but challenges associated with all candidates will ensure that any selection will require lengthy debate with members of the ruling family and parliament. Indeed, the emir’s main challenge will be managing his relationship with opposition MPs, who are likely to take advantage of the fact that he is not as charismatic as his predecessor and needs them to approve a new crown prince, to become more assertive in their demands. The new emir is consequently likely to grant limited concessions in the coming months, which will likely include committing to investigating high-level corruption allegations, including those involving members of the royal family, as well as potentially releasing detained activists in a bid to appease opposition MPs.
Nawaf is likely to wait until a new parliament is in place after elections, likely to be held in late November, before looking to appoint a crown prince. Whilst his selection process may lead to some criticism from senior royals and opposition MPs, it is unlikely to cause any major breakdown in relations within the ruling family. Moreover, elevated political tensions around the selection process will not have a significant impact on wider stability. Furthermore, major changes to Kuwait’s economic or business environment as a result of his choice of any of the aforementioned crown prince candidates are highly unlikely, ultimately ensuring broad continuity in Kuwait’s business operating environment for the foreseeable future.