Spot analysis from Carnegie scholars on events relating to the Middle East and North Africa.
On September 29, the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who had been in office between 2006 and 2020, passed away in the United States. Despite his age—he was 91—he ran the country’s affairs until his hospitalization on July 19. He was awarded the Legion of Merit by President Donald Trump on September 18, underlining the strength of Kuwaiti-U.S. relations. The prestigious award was last presented in 1991 and given to only eleven heads of state.
Two hours after the announcement of his death, Kuwait’s political system proved its resilience by following an orderly succession process. The cabinet named Crown Prince Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the late emir’s half brother, as the new emir, and he took an oath before parliament on September 30.
Why is It Important?
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad’s career is closely intertwined with the evolution of modern Kuwait. He was born before the discovery of oil and served the country for more than six decades as it underwent sweeping transformation. He had nurtured Brand Kuwait during his almost four decades as the country’s foreign minister, between 1963 and 1991 and again between 1992 and 2003, and transferred some of its elements to the domestic scene when be became prime minister and later emir. Driving this brand was an acute awareness of Kuwait’s limitations as a small state among larger neighbors in a volatile region. Hence, a key component was a persistent search for peace and stability that took into account the interests of all parties. Looking for a balance of power, mediating differences, and deescalating conflicts have long characterized Kuwaiti diplomacy. Pursuing this approach was not easy, but it led to tangible results on issues spanning the Middle East and to widespread acceptance of Kuwaiti assistance by diverse parties. This was evidenced most recently in the country’s efforts to resolve the dispute between three Gulf states and Qatar. The outpouring of condolences indicates the success of this strategy in branding Kuwait and safeguarding its interests.
The emir’s early outreach to Iraq also spoke to his foresight and keen interest in overcoming past difficulties. In 2018, this led him to host an International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq. The organization of humanitarian conferences for Syria, Kuwaiti aid policy, and the country’s support for multilateral organizations and causes earned Kuwait and Sheikh Sabah recognition by the United Nations in 2014, when the international organization named the country and its emir a humanitarian center and leader.
This spirit of inclusivity was also visible domestically. In May 2005, as prime minister, Sheikh Sabah pursued female suffrage first introduced by Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah in 1999, and a month later he named the first female minister.* His leadership and embrace of diversity was also evident at a time of national crisis when a foreign terrorist attacked a Shi‘a mosque in 2015. Sheikh Sabah rushed to the scene minutes after the blast, disregarding security risks, then tearfully proclaimed the dead as his own children. A key architect of Brand Kuwait is gone, but that does not mean the brand itself is gone.
What Are the Implications for the Future?
The late emir has left large shoes to fill. He is one of the modern Gulf’s founding fathers. His death represents the end of an era and a pivot toward a different type of Gulf politics characterized less by conciliation and restraint than by combativeness and competitiveness. Emir Nawaf is not new to the scene, having served in government since the early 1960s, notably as interior and defense minister. Low-key, modest, and firm, he is widely respected. He recognizes the successes of Kuwait’s foreign policy and will not venture far from the contours set by his predecessor. However, foreign policy continuity does not mean there will be no domestic changes.
The incoming emir will seek to address a number of important issues at home. While Sheikh Sabah is credited with abiding by the constitution, his time in power witnessed recurring deadlock between the executive and legislative branches, leading to seven dissolutions of parliament, the resignation of fourteen governments, and the appointment of three prime ministers in fourteen years. This, alongside the discontent of opposition figures at the way Kuwait was being managed, points toward a reconciliation in the making, given that Emir Nawaf has met several opposition figures in recent weeks.
Kuwait faces other challenges that include managing the Covid-19 pandemic, economic recession, unchecked corruption, mediocre government services, and unresolved issues, such as the status of stateless persons, the so-called bidun. Many of these challenges were present in the past, but now create an opportunity for the new emir to put his own stamp on Brand Kuwait.
Emir Nawaf’s first steps will determine the character of his reign. The choice of a crown prince will be telling in this regard, even if precedent suggests that the decision will not be imminent. Specific steps toward reconciliation, good governance, the diversification of national income, consideration of a new electoral law, and the promotion of capable younger figures in the state will go a long way toward revealing the direction of the new era.