On July 23rd, the emir of Kuwait arrived in the United States for further medical treatment following a surgical procedure in his home country. Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, who is 91 years old and has faced a number of health issues in recent years, is a widely respected and popular leader both at home and abroad. This dramatic episode however, where the emir traveled on a flying hospital complete with an ICU unit, prompted a new round of debate over what the Gulf state will look like once a new leader assumes the throne.
Kuwait has a different political system than other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: there is both a royal family and a parliamentary body, the National Assembly. Unlike other representative councils in the GCC, Kuwait’s National Assembly has a significant degree of power. Its members can remove ministers and override a veto by the emir with a two-thirds vote. One mechanism that leads to an imbalance between the monarchy and the Assembly, however, is that the former has the authority to dissolve the latter. That authority has been exercised many times over the decades, most recently in 2016.
Kuwait’s hybrid political model makes it the most democratic GCC nation, where robust political discourse takes place and scrutiny of the government is largely acceptable—although direct criticism of the emir is punishable by law. Kuwaitis are accustomed to political theatre and competition between factions vying for power. That competition extends to the inner workings of the royal Al Sabah family.
Since 2006, Sheikh Sabah has served as emir and his half-brother, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, has been the crown prince. While Sheikh Nawaf is slated to become the next emir, there is widespread speculation that other family members may challenge his position. Kuwaitis are also wondering who a future Emir Nawaf would choose to be his crown prince. The country’s constitution dictates that each new crown prince must be approved by a majority in the National Assembly, so the candidate needs to have strong relations with assembly members. Internal Al Sabah deliberations about who to nominate as crown prince are generally opaque.
Crown Prince Nawaf’s past positions include deputy chief of the National Guard, deputy prime minister, and minister of interior. Despite serving in those roles, he has not often been in the spotlight and his leadership abilities remain largely untested. The crown prince is also 83 years old. While succession procedure dictates that the crown prince will become the next emir, a power struggle is not out of the question. In neighboring Saudi Arabia, King Salman’s son Prince Mohammed bin Salman replaced Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince several years ago. While Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are very different in the realms of government and politics, that episode demonstrated that even in a region where tradition and seniority are central, dramatic shifts in power are possible.
The very appointment of Sheikh Nawaf as Kuwait’s crown prince was, in fact, a deviation from established norms, although not without precedent. Even though it has been standard practice to alternate the emir and crown prince between the Al Jaber and Al Salem branches of the Al Sabah family, Sheikh Sabah decided to name his brother crown prince. This opportunity stemmed from a unique moment in Kuwaiti succession, where Sheikh Saad Al Abdallah Al Salem Al Sabah became emir, then was removed from the position weeks later because of his failing health. Sheikh Sabah took over in the midst of this crisis and used his newfound status to consolidate power in the Al Jaber branch, making Sheikh Nawaf crown prince and Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Ahmad Al Sabah prime minister.
Another individual seen by many Kuwaitis as having the influence and capabilities to make the case for why he should be the next emir is Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al Sabah. Sheikh Nasser served as deputy prime minister and minister of defense; he was also the head of the Amiri Diwan (the royal court) from 2006-2017. He is ambitious and has advocated strongly for high-profile projects such as the proposed Silk City megaproject in northern Kuwait. In a country where the economy is largely stagnant and dependent on oil revenue, Sheikh Nasser’s bold ideas and anti-corruption rhetoric are attractive to large swaths of Kuwaiti politicians and businessmen. His interest in reform and diversification contrasts with Crown Prince Nawaf, who is more tied to the status quo and has not expressed significant interest in large-scale reform.
While Sheikh Nasser is a formidable figure who could be poised to take Kuwait in a new direction, he is not without controversy. In 2019, he was removed from his post as minister of defense after a public feud over government spending culminated with the prime minster and cabinet resigning. Sheikh Nasser asserts that the principal reason for the resignation was the embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars from the Ministry of Defense prior to his taking charge. His relationship with his father has also been strained at times.
Although he is not young, Sheikh Nasser, at 72, is eleven years younger than Crown Prince Nawaf. He has shown himself to be confident on the public stage and often uses accusations of corruption to point fingers at his opponents. On July 23rd, Sheikh Nasser tweeted about the battle against corruption and noted that no Kuwaiti is above the law. With a major platform and powerful backers, Sheikh Nasser could be poised to either attempt to become emir over Crown Prince Nawaf or become the next crown prince under a future Emir Nawaf. Sheikh Nasser appeals to a substantial number of Kuwaitis, especially those who seek a departure from the traditional Kuwaiti economy. Conversely, those benefiting from the standard Kuwaiti way of doing business—such as the well-heeled, pro-establishment members of the National Assembly—may view Sheikh Nasser as a threat to their preferred version of the country.
Were Sheikh Nasser to try to succeed the current emir, he would have to take unprecedented steps against a sitting crown prince and make the case that his leadership would benefit the country the most moving forward. Even if Crown Prince Nawaf becomes emir, because of his age and health issues, it is conceivable that Sheikh Nasser could transition from crown prince to emir in a relatively short period of time. Alternatively, Crown Prince Nawaf could abdicate the position, leaving Sheikh Nasser as a top contender. The contrast between Crown Prince Nawaf and Sheikh Nasser also highlights a broader question: where should Kuwait go from here? Since the trauma of the Iraqi invasion in 1990, Kuwait has generally been a cautious nation reluctant to make big changes. Sheikh Nasser could usher in a new era of assertiveness.
Regardless of who becomes the next Kuwaiti emir, the country’s foreign policy is likely to remain well-balanced and pro-American. Beyond the current succession scenarios, it will be interesting to observe power being transferred to the next generation of the Al Sabah family. One member of the next generation who is taking on more responsibility is the foreign minister, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah, who is approximately 50 years old. Since the current emir was previously the foreign minister, that position may be viewed as a potential stepping stone toward becoming a future emir. Despite the rise of Sheikh Tamim in Qatar and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, the Kuwaiti monarchy remains in the hands of elderly men with persistent health concerns. Young Kuwaitis would be keen to support an emir who better relates to their concerns and aspirations.
For now, however, the central question remains: who will fill the shoes of the celebrated Sheikh Sabah? Beyond Crown Prince Nawaf and Sheikh Nasser, other potential names include former minister of oil Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah and former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Sheikh Mohammed Sabah Al Sabah, who holds a PhD from Harvard. As Kuwait faces a budgetary crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be increased pressure to follow the established order of succession should a new emir come to power in the near future.
Bayly Winder is an incoming MBA student at Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter @BaylyWinder.