In a Middle East 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 is considrable 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 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 (MBS) 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 overall policies from the one pursued by Sheikh Sabah for 14 years, or a foreign policy 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. There are also well established relations with Britain which sent troops in 1961 when Iraq had also sought to recover what it considers to be its lost 19th province.
In terms of the region Sheikh Sabah had sought to avoid the confrontations taking place among neighbouring states. He had played a key role in setting up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 and, as he assumed the mantle of an elder statesman, the Emir has sought to reconcile the dispute between Qatar and a Saudi and UAE-led bloc. He had sought to mediate in the Yemen war, hosting a meeting between opposing sides and had also chaired conferences on aid for victims of the Syrian conflict.
Kuwait, under Sheikh Sabah, had not taken an aggressive international role as had been the case with two other Gulf States, the UAE and Qatar in arenas like Libya. He had also avoided the spotlight which has been on others, such as Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (MBZ) the 59-year-old Emirati Crown Prince, who is seen as a moderniser and described, somewhat simplistically, as the mentor of Saudi’s MBS .
Some stances on foreign affairs taken by Sheikh Sabah however had been 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 has 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 UAE and Bahrain deals, with possibly one to follow with Sudan, had followed pressure from the Trump administration with the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, presented as the chief broker. A victory for Donald Trump in November’s election is likely to 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 may rival Sheikh Nawaf over the succession.
Kuwait’s National Assembly has relatively greater powers compared to 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 appointment of Sheikh Nawaf as Crown Prince had 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, had 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.
The precedent for change may allow, some Gulf Royal watchers held, for a challenge for the Emir’s throne from Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Sabah, who had served as Defence Minister and Prime Minister in the past.
Aged 72, Sheikh Nasser can hardly be described as representing a new generation. But he had been a vocal advocate of reform and proponent of commercial initiatives like the Silk City Megaproject in the north of the country. He had been tweeting about the need to battle corruption since Sheikh Sabah went to the US for his operation.
At the end, however, no such challenge materialised. Kuwait’s establishment chose, instrad, to continue on the path of caution and stability set by their late Emir.