Cairo: In his inaugural address as Kuwait’s emir in September 2020, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah pledged to build on his predecessor Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad’s legacy and safeguard the country’s stability and democratic path. And he lived up to the promise.
At 83, Sheikh Nawaf took office after his half-brother Sabah died amid tough challenges at home, in the region and the world at large. Nawaf takes a lot of credit for weathering several storms without much fanfare.
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Rallying for national unity
“There are today delicate circumstances and dangerous challenges, which can only be surmounted by means of cementing ranks,” he told parliament upon taking the constitutional oath on September 30,2020.
In December of the same year, he sounded the alarm again. “You are aware of developments in the region,” he told the newly elected parliament. “You have formidable challenges ahead, necessitating a comprehensive reform programme,” he added.
At the time, Kuwait grappled with a tumble in global oil prices resulting in a financial shortfall, compounded by the global COVID-19 pandemic that spawned economic fallout worldwide.
Inter-GCC rift healed
Regionally, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of which Kuwait is a member was experiencing one of its worst rifts amid a boycott of a bloc led by Saudi Arabia against Qatar – two GCC members.
Building on his predecessor’s mediation efforts, Emir Nawaf helped heal the rift and end the inter-GCC row with a reconciliation pact sealed at a milestone summit that Saudi Arabia hosted in January 2021.
Sheikh Nawaf also played a key role in resolving a diplomatic dispute that erupted in 2021 between the Gulf nations and Lebanon after the latter’s then information minister George Kordahi had made remarks supporting Yemen’s Iran-aligned rebels. Kordahi later resigned.
At home, Sheikh Nawaf sought to deepen national unity. In a gesture of national reconciliation, he pardoned several inmates, including ex-lawmakers, and Kuwaitis convicted in 2016 on charges of spying for Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
Calling early election
Government and parliament standoffs are symptomatic of Kuwait’s politics. In June 2022, Sheikh Nawaf exercised his constitutional right and dissolved the legislature after yet another standoff that hampered necessary economic reforms in the country.
Two months earlier, the government resigned after more than half members of the 50-strong parliament backed a no-cooperation motion against it, plunging Kuwait into a political stalemate. On June 22, 2022, Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad gave an address on behalf of the emir, announcing parliament’s dissolution and calling for an early election.
“In response to the people’s wish and respect for their people to seek judgement of the constitution, we have decided to dissolve the National Assembly constitutionally and to call for general elections,” said the crown prince.
The royal urged voters to pick qualified candidates, warning that mischoice would harm the country’s interests and “bring us back to square one and atmosphere of prejudice and wrangling”. The election was held in September, marking Kuwait’s second legislative polls under Nawaf.
Again on May 1 of 2023, Kuwait’s parliament was dissolved, having only been reinstated in March based on a Constitutional Court ruling after a previous dissolution.
The state, an OPEC member, has seen prolonged bickering between the government and the elected parliament that has hampered fiscal reforms.
The parliament first elected in 2020 was dissolved last year in a bid to end the feuding, and a vote was held in September in which the opposition made gains. But the Constitutional Court in March annulled those results and restored the previous assembly.
Sheikh Meshal, who the decree on May 1, 2023, was handed most of the duties of Sheikh Nawaf in late 2021.
Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al Sabah, the emir’s son, had in January 2023 submitted his government’s resignation due to friction with the parliament elected in 2020. He was renamed premier in March and a new cabinet was announced this month.
Sheikh Nawaf had long been an insider of Kuwait’s politics and statecraft.
Born on June 25, 1937 when his father Ahmad Al Jaber was Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Nawaf studied in different schools in the homeland, including Al Mubarakia School where several members of the governing family received their education.
At 24, he was named governor of Hawalli, one of Kuwait’s main governorates. He held the post until 1978 when he was appointed interior minister. About a decade later, he became defence minister. During those years, Nawaf remarkably sought to bolster security cooperation between his country and other GCC members.
After Saddam Hussein’s occupation forces were dislodged from Kuwait in 1991, Sheikh Nawaf was picked to head the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour in the first post-liberation government tasked with repairing the massive havoc wrought by the invaders.
Sheikh Nawaf held the portfolio of the Interior Ministry again, a post he kept until he was named crown prince in February 2006.
He became the de-facto ruler of the country for some months as Emir Sheikh Sabah travelled abroad for medical treatment.
Popular within the ruling Al Sabah family, Sheikh Nawaf has a reputation for modesty, and has largely maintained a low profile.
Sheikh Nawaf himself travelled to the US in March 2021 to undergo “regular medical check-ups,” according to the official Kuwaiti news agency KUNA. In July of the same year, he underwent unspecified medical tests in Germany.
In November 2021, Nawaf delegated some of his powers to the crown prince, raising speculation about his health.
Sheikh Nawaf is survived by five children, including Kuwait’s incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad.