On September 29, Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah passed away after ruling for 14 years. Messages of condolences flooded from all over the world to mourn a statesman who will be remembered as a respected mediator in a troubled region. After serving for 40 years as foreign minister, Emir Sabah had earned robust diplomatic credentials which he harnessed during his reign to mediate in various crises, from Iraq to the Gulf Cooperation Council standoff, from Yemen to the Iran-Arab Gulf confrontation.
Kuwaiti Efforts to Help Stabilize Iraq
The late Kuwaiti emir managed to uphold a balanced position and steady policy for his country throughout the 2010s, despite increasing regional polarization. With his passing, the Middle East has lost an important peacemaker. The newly appointed Emir Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, the late emir’s half-brother, now faces the task of keeping Kuwait on track amid domestic and external challenges.
Who is Who in the al-Sabah Family?
Emir Nawaf, who is 83, stepped onto the throne immediately after the death of his predecessor, as is customary in royal law. The new emir built his career in the security sector, serving as interior and defense minister of Kuwait, as well as the deputy chief of the national guard. Emir Nawaf has never taken outright positions on key political matters and has stayed outside the spotlight throughout his career. His approach is unlikely to change during his reign, something that leads experts to foresee an overall continuity with the policies and positions of his predecessor.
The profile of the new crown prince who is next in the line of succession, Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, reflects that of the emir in terms of both security background and low profile. Like Emir Nawaf, 80-year-old Meshaal al-Sabah also served at the interior ministry and has largely contributed to shaping the national guard since 2004. Notably, the crown prince was nominated by the emir and approved by the national assembly just one week after the succession. And although Emir Sabah’s illness had given enough time to the ruling family to make internal decisions, the swift transition has also been orchestrated to send a signal of stability inside and outside the country.
There are two main takeaways from the choice of Meshaal al-Sabah as crown prince. First, the al-Ahmad branch of the royal family consolidates its position in the line of succession. The al-Sabah family is indeed made of two branches, al-Jaber and al-Salem, which have alternated as emirs of Kuwait. With Meshaal, the al-Jaber branch has set its third consecutive member in the line of succession, after Emir Sabah and Emir Nawaf.
Compensation to the al-Salem branch will probably come in the form of senior government positions. Secondly, there has been no shift toward the next generation of the family as happened elsewhere in other Gulf monarchies. Several experts indeed expected a move similar to that taken by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who moved on to the next generation of the family by appointing his son, Muhammad Bin Salman, as crown prince in 2015.
Two members of the al-Sabah’s next generation are poised to race for leadership, if not now, then at least in the foreseeable future, given the age of the current and next incumbents. One is Emir Sabah’s son, Nasser al-Sabah. He is the mastermind of the national development plan, New Kuwait 2035, to boost private investment and reduce economic dependency from oil revenues. But Sheikh Nasser Sabah is also heralding the fight against corruption.
This role rallied popular support around him and allowed him to target the former prime minister and the interior minister, two potential competitors, amid a corruption scandal in 2019. Another family member is often mentioned among competitors for power is Nasser al-Mohammad, a nephew of the late emir who was forced to step down after a public outcry against him in 2011.
Portrayed as guarantors of stability, the new emir and crown prince will have to deal with domestic and external questions from the very beginning. The first challenge ahead is the parliamentary election scheduled for November. The Kuwaiti national assembly is by and large the region’s most powerful parliamentary body given its veto right on legislation and the right to take away confidence from individual ministers. In recent times, the assembly has often clashed with the government, causing deadlock and leading the emir to dissolve the parliament on multiple occasions. As a signal of appeasement with the assembly, Nawaf al-Sabah met with two opposition figures and received a list of demands back in September.
Parliamentary support will be essential for his highness’ government to pass critical legislation on financial borrowing. The recent oil price crisis has severely depleted state coffers. This year, Kuwait’s debt has soared to $46 billion, around 33% of the GDP, due to a combination of extraordinary expenditures to fight COVID-19 and falling oil revenues. These factors motivated Moody’s decision to downgrade Kuwait from A1 to Aa2 for the first time at the end of September. Another reason the rating agency mentioned in its report was the inability of the wealthy Gulf monarchy to borrow money abroad.
But here, the parliament comes back into the picture. The Kuwaiti executive cannot issue sovereign bonds on international markets without previous approval from the national assembly. Back in August, the parliament turned down a bill allowing the government to issue external bonds. But once a new legislature comes into effect, and given Kuwait’s dangerous financial situation, the government will likely put forward a similar bill again.
Besides immediate financial concerns, Kuwait wants to undergo structural reforms not dissimilar from those of its fellow monarchies across the Gulf. That is the idea behind the national development plan that should reduce the share of oil revenues in the economy from 90% to one-third, according to its designers. Kuwait’s “vision” centers around large-scale infrastructural projects, like the Mubarak al-Kabir port and Silk City, the $86-billion town under construction that is expected to become a pivot along China’s New Silk Road.
Another key reform concerns subsidies, in particular on fuel, since it takes the lion share in the state budget. The first attempts at reform had been made at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, but they have repeatedly faced opposition from the national assembly. Such rejection of reforms was not the result of opportunistic behavior by MPs but reflected a widespread sentiment among Kuwaitis who fear that subsidy reforms and a structural transition would undermine their position within a post-rentier economy. These are but the main domestic challenges that the new emir and the crown prince will have to confront.
Consequences for the Region
For Kuwait, external challenges equal domestic ones. Kuwait has been the main broker of intra-Gulf dialogue to solve the standoff between Qatar on one side, and Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. While Kuwait’s mediating strategy is here to stay, the absence of an experienced negotiator such as Emir Sabah behind the process will likely hinder its impact. At the same time, Crown Prince Meshaal is allegedly close to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a result of the years spent leading security cooperation against the Muslim Brotherhood along with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In support of this claim, the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman reportedly called Meshaal al-Sabah both before and after his appointment as crown prince.
The prospects of a region-wide dialogue involving Iran and Saudi Arabia might be similarly affected. Along with Oman, Kuwait has repeatedly called on the two shores of the Persian Gulf to come to the negotiation table. The European Union and other international actors saw Kuwait as the best-positioned country to host and drive any mediation initiative. Nevertheless, a combination of domestic concerns and the lack of a recognized mediator in the monarchy’s leadership might undermine such efforts. On 27 September, the Kuwaiti prime minister proposed a regional dialogue to defuse regional tensions but, unsurprisingly, only Tehran responded positively to the call.
The passing of Emir Sabah has deprived Kuwait of a shrewd statesman. The new incumbents will try to maintain the Gulf monarchy on its track. Yet domestic challenges abound, and external pressures to abandon neutrality will likely be reinforced. Withing the al-Sabah family, the next generation is waiting to enter into the line of succession, positing major challenges for Emir Nawaf and Crown Prince Meshaal.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.