Kuwait awaits appointment of new crown prince

30 September 2020
Faced with deep political divisions and chronic economic challenges, the selection of the next crown prince will be critical in shaping Kuwait's long-term outlook

Kuwait's Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah has taken over as the Gulf state’s new emir, succeeding his older half-brother, the late Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, who died aged 91 on 29 September after a long illness.

The Kuwait government moved quickly to announce Sheikh Nawaf (pictured right by Kuna) as the new ruler, announcing it on the day of the passing of Sheikh Sabah following an extraordinary meeting led by Prime Minister Sheikh Khaled al-Hamad al-Sabah.

Sheikh Nawaf had taken on many of the emir’s constitutional powers since July 2020 as Sheikh Sabah travelled to the US for treatment of an unknown condition.

That the new emir is 83 years old highlights ongoing concerns over Kuwait’s longer-term political stability, amid mounting worries about the government's finances and the health of the economy.

Succession planning

Key for Kuwait now will be to quickly resolve the issue of who will become the new crown prince.

Unlike Europe's monarchies, where rule is traditionally inherited by the eldest son, rulers in the Gulf are typically chosen by consensus from senior members of the ruling family, usually selecting the most senior member with an established track record.

Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Sabah, the son of the late emir, had long been seen by many analysts as the leading contender having been the driving force behind the Vision 2035 economic diversification plan.

But his position was made difficult in November 2019 when he was removed from his role as defence minister following a public disagreement with the former interior minister.

Other possible candidates include Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, a nephew of the late emir, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2011.

The 79-year old was the focus of anti-government protests, which led to the storming of the National Assembly building and eventually to his resignation.

Given the age of the new emir, it may not be long before any of the candidates find themselves in power

By consensus

Who takes over will not be up to the ruling Al-Sabah family alone.

Unlike its GCC neighbours, Kuwait has a long-established parliamentary system, and the 200-member National Assembly can use its authority to constrain the power of ruler and government.

According to the Kuwaiti Constitution, an incoming emir’s choice of crown prince must be approved by a majority in parliament. Failing that, the emir must submit three other alternative choices for the National Assembly to pick from.

Given the age of the new emir, it may not be long before any of the candidates find themselves in power and having to deal with Kuwait’s chronic economic challenges, as well as the region's shifting political landscape.

Challenges ahead

Before that, however, the new emir and crown prince must work with parliament to find a way to break the cycle of opposition and dissolution that has plagued the country for most of the past decade.

Doing that may require giving the National Assembly a greater voice in government.

The current situation sees ministers handpicked by the prime minister with key portfolios remaining under the control of the Al-Sabah family. Parliament is left to select a junior minister from its ranks.

The result is blocs of parliamentarians determined to challenge the government at every opportunity over what they describe as government corruption and incompetence.

It will take years, even generations, of dedicated work and clear direction for Kuwait to lift itself out of its current economic and political mire

Economic management

In the meantime, Kuwait’s economic ambitions have stalled.

Long-held plans to boost its crude oil production capacity – the life blood of the economy – have been repeatedly pushed back as officials and major projects come under regular scrutiny.

The rare election of a less combative parliament in 2013 helped facilitate progress on several critical megaprojects in the oil sector, including the $13.5bn Clean Fuels Project and $11bn Al-Zour refinery. Delayed for years by parliament, both schemes are finally nearing completion.

Low oil prices and the economic shock of Covid-19 have deepened fiscal pressures in Kuwait.

In September, parliament approved the 2020-21 budget, which projects a $46bn deficit resulting from low oil prices.

The deficit is more than twice that previously forecast for the year. It will be the seventh consecutive year of deficits.

The severity of the situation prompted parliament to approve a bill on 19 August to temporarily halt the transfer of 10 per cent of revenue to the Future Generations Reserve Fund in years when the government runs a deficit.

Sheikh Sabah's role as regional statesman and mediator will be one of his primary legacies 

The Middle East's shifting sands

Alongside the country's economic challenges, Kuwait must also navigate the region's rapidly changing political landscape that sees relations between Riyadh and Tehran becoming increasingly polarised, and the splintering of the GCC. 

The signing of the Abraham Accords – the agreements to normalise relations between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel – break the long-standing Arab boycott of Israel and reflect a paradigm shift in the politics of the Arab world.

They also reflect the growing concerns about Turkey's ambitions in the region and growing significance to the Gulf states of the East Mediterranean region.      

The role of regional statesman and mediator will be one of the primary legacies of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, who cultivated Kuwait’s political independence and saw himself as a moderating influence in the region, engaging in shuttle diplomacy to resolve disputes.

He resisted considerable pressure in 2017 to stay out of the boycott of Qatar by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and invested considerable energy in trying to mediate an end to the standoff, although it ultimately failed.

Delivering change

The task of finding a way through these substantial challenges now falls to Kuwait's new emir, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah.

But it will take years, even generations, of dedicated work and clear direction for Kuwait to lift itself out of its current economic and political mire. Inevitably, the task will pass to Sheikh Nawaf's successor.

The selection of Kuwait's new crown prince will be a critical decision in shaping the long-term outlook for Kuwait. 

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