With Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Sabah now approaching his 91st birthday, the region’s attention is turning to the topic of succession once again. The transition of power to Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf seems relatively certain. However, the matter of who will become the next crown prince and potential long-term ruler of Kuwait remains an open question; uncertainty surrounding succession leaves Kuwait open to internal conflict over tradition and family lineage, and could cause significant changes in regional and global relations.
Gulf Monitor | Courtney Freer | Kuwait Succession
As the dust settles on the transition of power in Oman following the death of Sultan Qaboos and succession of Sultan Haitham, GCC analysts are turning their attention to the topic of succession in Kuwait – and rightly so.
As a linchpin of GCC unity – to the extent that it has ever existed – the matter of what will happen and who will hold the reins of power in Kuwait following the passing of Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah – currently 90 years old and recently returned from medical treatment in the US – is an important one, with potentially major consequences for regional power balancing.
Of the two countries – Oman and Kuwait – it is Oman that has had the greater freedom to pursue foreign policies independent of its neighbours, remaining neutral on issues such as the Qatar blockade and the war in Yemen while also publicly pursuing closer ties with Iran and Israel than most of its neighbours. Kuwait, on the other hand, has been a more conciliatory force, and played an integral role in the region in this respect, notably by successfully mediating the 2013-14 GCC crisis and serving as a go-between in the Qatar crisis since 2017.
The immediate question of who shall be the next emir is already settled: Sheikh Sabah’s 82-year-old half-brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, who is also deputy commander of the military, is set to take over. However, Sheikh Nawaf is the oldest crown prince in the world – and many Kuwait watchers wonder how long he would hold power if his potential succession becomes a reality.
Sheikh Nasser Sabah: A natural choice for crown prince?
There is a degree of uncertainty around which member of the ruling family would emerge as the next crown prince. The current emir’s son, Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, the driving force behind Kuwait’s ambitious economic diversification plan Vision 2035, is the strongest contender.
Despite being removed from the Cabinet as defence minister in November 2019 following a very public disagreement with the former interior minister,Sheikh Nasser Sabah is a very influential figure and a strong candidate for crown prince due to his leading role in economic diversification plans, particularly the Silk City megaproject.
If he were to eventually take power in a succession change, Sheikh Nasser Sabah could drive through much-needed reforms and potentially make Kuwait more assertive regionally in search of investment or financing opportunities.
Another potential successor is Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, the emir’s nephew, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2011 and has maintained close ties with the emir in spite of a tumultuous political career. Interestingly, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed’s son, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah, was named foreign minister in November 2019 – perhaps signalling the political power in that segment of the family.
However, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed’s reputation was tarnished, at least with members of the political opposition, during his tenure as prime minister when he became embroiled in a corruption scandal, an event which ultimately led to his resignation. As a result, he could face considerable contention from among the opposition in Parliament if he were appointed as the next crown prince.
One figure who enjoys more popular support, particularly among the broad-based opposition, is Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, president of the Olympic Council of Asia and former head of the oil ministry and secretary-general of OPEC. Sheikh Ahmad was involved in exposing what he claimed to be tapes of Sheikh Nasser Mohammed and the former Parliament speaker plotting a coup in 2015.Since that time, however, he has not held a politically influential role, making it unlikely that he would be named crown prince. If chosen to lead Kuwait, it is possible Sheikh Ahmad would implement protectionist policies regarding foreign investment to shore up popular support.
Learning from the past
Of course, much discussion of succession plans is speculative and difficult to confirm. Nonetheless, it is instructive to look back at Kuwait’s last transference of power, which demonstrated for the first time the power of the legislature in matters of succession.
In 2006, following the death of Emir Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah, power was meant to go to Crown Prince Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah. The prince had been removed from his role as prime minister in 2003 due to deteriorating health but had retained the position of crown prince in line with traditional practice in Kuwait that the position of head of state rotate between the Al Jaber and Al Salem branches of the Al Sabah ruling family.
However, concerns about the ailing Sheikh Saad’s mental aptitude to hold the position of emir led to a vote in Parliament to remove him from power. Before that could happen, Sheikh Saad abdicated.
Since there was no crown prince in place after Sheikh Saad stepped down, Parliament approved then-prime minister Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad as the emir – deviating from the traditional Al Jaber and Al Salem rotation. Despite this change, however, no violence emerged and the Al Sabah family remained united in the decision – at least publicly.
The Al Salem contender
Some analysts have posited that a member of the Al Salem branch of the ruling family could be appointed crown prince after Sheikh Nawaf, who, like the emir, hails from the Al Jaber branch. Sheikh Mohammed Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, seems the likeliest candidate. Notably, Sheikh Mohammed Sabah resigned from government in 2011 in the midst of a corruption scandal involving alleged government pay outs to MPs. At the time, he explained his unwillingness to serve in “a government that does not carry out true reforms regarding the multi-million bank deposits.”It is very uncertain, then, whether Sheikh Mohammed Sabah wants to pursue political life, as he has taken on academic posts after his resignation.
Succession will undoubtedly have knock-on regional effects beyond the more obvious domestic ones. One issue of regional importance that is often mentioned with regard to Kuwaiti succession is Saudi Arabia. Both Sheikh Nasser Sabah and Sheikh Nasser Mohammed are said to enjoy close ties with the Saudis. If either gains power, this could potentially affect GCC-wide relations, especially in relation to Qatar. However, it is unlikely that any future Kuwaiti ruler would join the blockade against Qatar, given that a non-aligned, independent foreign policy has long been a hallmark of Kuwaiti foreign policy.
Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that the current emir, Sheikh Sabah, has been the architect of this foreign policy for decades, having served as foreign minister between 1963 and 2003 before becoming emir in 2006. His death therefore could signal some shift in foreign policy directions, though drastic changes to Kuwait’s regional position in the short to medium term are unlikely, largely due to the popularity and perceived efficacy of Kuwaiti foreign policy.
Courtney Freer is a research fellow on the Kuwait programme at LSE Middle East Centre. Her work focuses on the domestic politics of the Gulf states, particularly the roles played by Islamism and tribalism. She is the author of the book “Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies.”
Reuters Dec 17, 2019 “Kuwait appoints new Cabinet after parliament tension” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kuwait-government/kuwait-appoints-new-cabinet-after-parliament-tension-idUSKBN1YL0NS
BBC news Nov 28, 2011 “Kuwait’s prime minister resigns after protest” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15931526
Al Arabiya news November 2018 “Powerful Kuwait sports official charged with forging evidence against former prime minister” https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2018/11/17/powerful-kuwaiti-sports-official-to-be-tried-for-forgery
 New York Times Jan 24 2006 “Ailing Emir of Kuwait Steps Down” https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/24/world/middleeast/ailing-emir-of-kuwait-steps-down-ending-a-succession.html
 Gulf States News Newsletter Sept 19, 2020 “Al Salem branch shouldn’t be written out of the constitution” http://www.gsn-online.com/al-salem-branch-shouldn%E2%80%99t-be-written-out-of-kuwaiti-succession-0