n a region marked by turbulence and change, the emir of Kuwait was regarded as one of the last powerful voices of the traditional old order – a ruler who spread his considerable influence through pragmatism and restraint.
The death of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah at the age of 91 is not going to lead to generational and high-profile change in Kuwait as has taken place in Saudi Arabia, for example, with the emergence of the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whose regime has been marked by significant reform as well as acts of brutality.
Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who was sworn in as emir on Wednesday, is 83 years old. He has shown no inclination to pursue radically different policies from those pursued by Sheikh Sabah for 14 years, including a foreign policy that the late emir had fashioned for more than a half-century.
On international relations, the onus has been on partnership with the west, particularly the US, the need for which was acutely highlighted by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War. The country also has well-established relations with Britain, which sent troops in 1961 when Iraq had also sought to recover what Saddam declared as its “19th province”.
In terms of the Middle East, Sheikh Sabah sought to avoid the confrontations taking place among neighbouring states. He played a key role in setting up the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 and, as he assumed the mantle of an elder statesman, the emir sought to reconcile the dispute between Qatar and a Saudi and UAE-led bloc. He sought to mediate in the Yemen war, hosting a meeting between opposing sides and also chaired conferences on aid for victims of the Syrian conflict.
Kuwait, under Sheikh Sabah, did not take an aggressive international role as was the case with two other Gulf states – the UAE and Qatar – in arenas like Libya. He also avoided the spotlight, which fell on others, such as Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the 59-year-old Emirati crown prince, who is seen as a moderniser and is described, somewhat simplistically, as the mentor of Saudi’s crown prince.
Some stances on foreign affairs taken by Sheikh Sabah, however, were portrayed by critics as failing to recognise changing dynamics. The emir had, for example, opposed the recent peace agreements signed between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain from the time they were first mooted.
The deals, Kuwait pointed out, were in breach of a 2002 consensus on the conditions needed for the recognition of the Jewish state by Arab countries, and offered little to the Palestinians. Sheikh Sabah stressed to regional leaders last year that Kuwait would not countenance normalising relations with Israel unless there were undertakings on a two-state solution.
Israel’s deals with UAE and Bahrain, and possibly one to follow with Sudan, followed pressure from the Trump administration, with the US president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, presented as the chief broker. A victory for Donald Trump in November’s election would likely lead to a further push for Arab states to fall into line, an issue the new emir will have to address.
Sheikh Sabah died at the Mayo clinic in Rochester, New York, where he had undergone surgery in July. There had been speculation during his illness that members of the royal family might challenge Sheikh Nawaf over the succession.
Kuwait’s national assembly has greater powers compared with other Gulf states. Its members can remove ministers and counter any vetoes by the emir with a two-thirds vote. Each new crown prince needs to be approved by a majority in the assembly.
The succession of Sheikh Nawaf as crown prince changed established rules by which the emir and the crown prince alternated between the al-Jaber and al-Salem branches of the al-Sabah family. Sheikh Sabah, upon becoming emir, consolidated the power of his branch of the family by getting the assembly to vote in his half-brother as crown prince and then appointing Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmad al-Sabah as prime minister.
Some Gulf royal watchers said that the the precedent for change would allow for a challenge for the emir’s throne from Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Sabah, who has served as defence minister and deputy prime minister in the past.
Aged 72, Sheikh Nasser can hardly be described as representing a new generation, but he has been a vocal advocate of reform and proponent of commercial initiatives such as the Silk City mega-project in the north of the country. He tweeted about the need to battle corruption after Sheikh Sabah went to the US for his operation.
In the end, however, no such challenge materialised. Kuwait’s establishment chose, instead, to continue on the path of caution and stability set by their late emir.