20201001 Sheikh Nawaf
The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah. Image Credit: Reuters

Kuwait City: Since Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah was sworn in as the new Emir of Kuwait on September 30, many questions have been surfacing as to how things will change, or not, under his rule. Sheikh Nawaf was appointed Emir of Kuwait, hours after his half brother and late Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, passed away at age 91.

A query that was on most people’s minds is, who will be Kuwait’s next crown prince?

The suspense did not last long, as within a week Sheikh Nawaf, 83, nominated Sheikh Mishal Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, deputy of the National Guard, as his crown prince.

On Thursday, the National Assembly unanimously approved the Emir’s nomination and Sheikh Mishal was sworn in as Crown Prince on October 8. It is the National Assembly’s constitutional duty to vote on the Emir’s nomination, which is required to receive a majority vote by the MPs.

Historically, the National Assembly has never rejected any Emir’s nomination for Crown Prince.

Although the Kuwaiti constitution stipulates that the crown prince must be nominated within a year from when a new Emir takes his post, Sheikh Nawaf nominated his crown prince within a week. The late Emir, Sheikh Sabah, nominated his crown prince, Sheikh Nawaf, nine days after he became Emir.

These constitutional procedures are in place to ensure a smooth transfer of power and a transparent line of succession.

The speaker of the National Assembly, Marzouq Al Ghanim, declared that the appointment of Sheikh Mishal as crown prince goes to show Kuwait’s, “calm and smooth transfer of power.”

Last year, Nabeel Nowairah, an independent Gulf analyst, predicted that Sheikh Mishal was to become the new crown prince.

“My assessment was that the crown prince would be from Al Jaber branch. Sheikh Meshal, being a strong member of the family and deputy of the National Guard, was an option,” Nowairah told Gulf News.

Domestic changes

As Kuwait prepares for an upcoming parliamentary election, either at the end of November or early December, it is likely that the new Emir and Crown Prince will focus on domestic issues.

“Shaikh Nawaf, has been very vocal and committed to fighting corruption well before he became Emir,” Shamael Al Sharikh, Kuwaiti political analyst, told Gulf News.

In August, Sheikh Nawaf said during a public address that nobody is ‘too big or too small before the law’ and that everybody is equal.

“He also stated that members of the ruling family are citizens of Kuwait, and therefore are subject to the same laws as everyone; whomever errs bears the responsibility of his or her action. These public commitments lead us to believe that the Emir will tackle corruption with a firm hand, and will reign in anyone who believes they are exempt from the law because of their social status,” Al Sharikh explained.

“I am confident that Kuwait's Emir and his new cabinet, which I think is likely to remain headed by Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid, [current cabinet of ministers] will stress the importance of tackling [the corruption] issue,” Nowairah said.

Although it is customary for the government to hand in its resignation when a new Emir is sworn in, Sheikh Nawaf reaffirmed his confidence in the current government and asked them to carry out their duties until the upcoming parliamentary elections.

While the legislative and executive branches are split, the Emir chooses the Prime Minister who then appoints the cabinet of minister, which is then required to receive approval by the National Assembly.

Acting with his constitutional authority as deputy Emir, Sheikh Nawaf oversaw any changes that occurred as the late Emir was undergoing medical treatment in the United States. Under Kuwaiti law, in the absence of the Emir, the deputy Emir is appointed as acting ruler.

Unexpectedly, last month, Sheikh Nawaf, met with two opposition figures, Dr Abdullah Al Nafisi and Dr Obaid Al Wasmi and was presented with the ‘Kuwait Document’ which outlines demands that include: political reconciliation, forming a salvation government, reforming the judiciary, hiring independent foreign agencies for help create a new electoral system.

“We look forward to a political detente with Sheikh Nawaf who has shown some positive signs, including by meeting with opposition leaders,” Ahmad Deyain, secretary general of the opposition group Kuwaiti Progressive Movement, told Reuters.

The opposition is seeking to improve ties with the new leadership after several bouts of unrest in the past, most notably in 2012 when Sheikh Sabah issued an Emiri decree in 2012 amending the electoral system. Following the news, major protests broke out in Kuwait and many opposition figures were detained or exiled.

“Every new leader wants to have a new chapter and minimise the number of enemies. There is no better time to do this than the beginning of someone’s era. This sends a good signal that Sheikh Nawaf is willing to talk about the opposition concerns. But this does not mean that he will properly respond to the opposition demands, basically because the opposition groups in Kuwait are diverse, and in some cases, they have contradictory demands,” Nowairah pointed out.

Economic reforms

Another domestic focus will be the economy as Kuwait is struggling with a liquidity crisis with the rapid drop of oil prices and the rise in government spending due to the COVID-19 crisis.

In August, the National Assembly’s finance and economic committee rejected a public draft bill that would allow the government to borrow 20 billion Kuwaiti dinars, locally and internationally, across 30 years.

The government and the National Assembly have been in deadlock for the past couple of years with regards to borrowing money from abroad. This is not the first time the National Assembly turns down a public debt bill, as there have been a couple of attempts in the past.

In September, Al Rai reported that the governments might exercise its executive authority and issue an emergency decree to pass the public debt law. According to Article 71 of the Kuwaiti constitution, the government is able to issue a decree should an urgent matter arise while the National Assembly is in between sessions.

It is uncertain if any economic reforms will take place as the National Assembly is between sessions. 

Change in diplomacy?

The late Emir was hailed as the force behind Kuwait's foreign policy and a leading Arab diplomat. During his 40 years as a humanitarian leader and regional mediator, he set the direction of Kuwait's foreign policy. After his passing, many began wondering if Kuwait’s foreign policy stance will change.

“I would classify Kuwait’s stance as more balanced than neutral, because we understand the grievances from all sides in the GCC conflict, and see the validity in each viewpoint. This gives credibility and trust among our GCC brethren, and places us in a strong position to continue our role as mediator,” Al Sharikh said.

Amidst the 2017 Gulf crisis, Sheikh Sabah established Kuwait as the key mediator between the two sides. The Emir’s efforts to act as mediator were applauded by the United States and France. Kuwait, which has retained ties with Qatar and has often acted as a mediator in regional disputes, has maintained that it wants to resolve the dispute “within the unified Gulf house”.

“Kuwaitis hope for the rift to be resolved, but at the same time, there are some groups who are pro-Saudi Arabia and some are pro-Qatar. Kuwait leadership’s neutral stance on this regional issue satisfies both parties inside the country,” Nowairah said.

After taking the constitutional oath, Sheikh Mishal said during his speech that, “Kuwait retains its Gulf, regional and international commitments.”

Shortly after being appointed crown prince, Sheikh Mishal received a call from Mohammad Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, to congratulate him.

“Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s call to Sheikh Meshal, both before and after his appointment, is an indication that Saudi Arabia wants to have the new leadership on its side. It is very early to assess, but I think Sheikh Meshal will have a greater role in the country, whether internal or foreign policy, than when Sheikh Nawaf was Crown Prince,” Nowairah explained.

Security and the National Guard

Both Sheikh Nawaf and Sheikh Mishal have been active in maintaining the security and defence position of Kuwait, as well as other Arab states.

“Both HH the Emir Shaikh Nawaf and HH the Crown Prince Shaikh Meshal come for a security background, and both have been known for implementing the rule of law unapologetically within their respective security functions,” Al Sharikh said.

The new Emir laid low during his time as crown prince, defence minister and even as minister of interior. Yet, he became known as the founder of the National Guard during his time as the deputy of the National Guard.

“I do not expect clear change in regional security or military coalitions, as Kuwait will still be keen to preserve its neutrality, but we may see some inclinations towards some parties under regional pressure,” Nowairah pointed out.

While both the Sheikhs have a background in security, they are known for maintaining a low-profile.

Over the years, Sheikh Nawaf has earned a reputation for being modest.

A day after being sworn in as Emir, Sheikh Nawaf was seen leaving the regular Friday prayer, at Bilal bin Rabah mosque, driving his own car and without a security motorcade.

Career Timeline

Sheikh Nawaf and Sheikh Mishal are both sons of 10th Ruler from the Al Sabah dynasty, Sheikh Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, who ruled Kuwait from 1921 to 1950.

Traditionally, the position of Emir and Crown Prince has been held by the Al Salem and Al Jaber branches of the Al Sabah family.

In 1960, Sheikh Mishal graduated with a degree from the Hendon Police College in London.

Less than a year after Kuwait gained its independence in 1962, following a period in which it was a British protectorate, Sheikh Nawaf held his first political post as Governor of Hawali.

Two years after assuming the position as Minister of Interior, Sheikh Nawaf spearheaded the negotiations during the 1980 hijacking of the Kuwait Airways flight from Beirut to Kuwait.

Then in 1988, Sheikh Nawaf assumed the position as Minister of Defence, which he held during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In 1991, he became the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour, before he assumed the position of deputy of the National Guard in 1994.

In 2003, he was reinstated as the Minister of Interior, then a few months later a Amiri Decree was issued assigning Sheikh Nawaf as the First Deputy Prime Minister, as well as Minister of Interior.

Before assuming the position as deputy of the National Guard in 2004, Sheikh Mishal held several positions in the Ministry of Interior.