Kuwait’s leader has died. The royals are now fighting over who will be crown prince

Mourners carry the body of Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah at Sulaibikhat Cemetery in Kuwait City on Wednesday. (Kuna/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Mourners carry the body of Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah at Sulaibikhat Cemetery in Kuwait City on Wednesday. (Kuna/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

On Tuesday, Kuwait’s 91-year-old emir, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah died. The reins of authority in this ruling monarchy have passed to his half-brother and crown prince, 83-year-old Sheikh Nawaf Ahmed al-Sabah. Kuwaitis now wonder, given the new emir’s advanced age, whom he will designate as the new crown prince and heir apparent.

The last Kuwaiti succession, in 2006, triggered a mild political crisis. This one could be far worse. Who becomes the next crown prince, and thus who rules Kuwait next, will affect four long-simmering tensions that reflect deep political conflicts and popular frustrations.

Of course, any uncertainty involving succession within a ruling monarchy inevitably triggers red flags. Succession crises determine the fate of authoritarian regimes, which can collapse when the transfer of power becomes mired in vicious competition. In the past, because dynastic rulers in Kuwait and other Persian Gulf kingdoms regulated family disputes, these monarchies were not usually considered worrisome cases.

That’s recently changed in the gulf — witness Qatar’s 2013 royal abdication, Oman’s cousin-to-cousin succession this past January, the rise of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and the consolidation of Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in the United Arab Emirates. These monarchies remain outwardly stable, but succession shifts still have had massive consequences, especially for the region. It is difficult to imagine the Saudi-Emirati intervention in Yemen without the moves by either country’s new power.

Kuwait now joins this group, adding to the region’s political uncertainty. This is a critical juncture within a country that has nearly a 10th of the world’s crude oil reserves, hosts a massive U.S. military base and has been a staunch Western ally since the 1991 Gulf War. Here’s what you need to know.

Kuwait’s next-generation leaders are impatient politicians

By Kuwaiti law, only male descendants of Sheikh Mubarak the Great, who ruled until 1915, can assume the throne. Both the late ruler and the new emir, Nawaf, are among the last of Mubarak’s great-grandchildren. The only option left in this cohort is another half-brother, Sheikh Mishaal, but the conservative figure is unpopular among political opposition, including the powerful Islamist bloc.

The next generation is hardly young, filled with princes in their 50s to 70s. But it is larger, wealthier and more competitive. They came of age after Kuwait gained independence in 1961, when the country sprouted not only its elected legislature, but also an independent media and civil society. They are princes — but also politicians, capable of leading public campaigns, buying support and eliminating enemies. The upshot is that unlike before, debates about succession will not be private royal affairs so much as public spectacles.

Kuwait’s two dynastic branches may clash

For the past century, Kuwaiti rulers have alternated from two branches of the Sabah family — the Salem and Jabir lines. In 2006, this pattern of alternation ended to the advantage of the Jabir branch, which orchestrated the removal of newly crowned Emir Saad on grounds of ill health.

Like his late half-brother, Nawaf hails from the Jabir side. This slights Salem princes, who demand reentry into the succession line for fear of permanent political relegation. Many retain significant influence, including former foreign minister Mohammed Sabah. If the emir still favors relatives within the Jabir line, Salem pushback could cause intrafamily conflict.

The potential successors have a lot of political baggage

The three next-generation Jabir princes vying for succession have been actively feuding, mostly with one another. The most public example is the personal quarrel between Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd and Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed, who have waged political war upon each other for a decade. The battle has consumed their enlisted allies, including younger princes, business partners, parliamentarians, lawyers and journalists. Details of this strife are worthy of cinematic drama and include secret videotapes featuring coup plots, raids on supporters, alleged judicial bribery and even courtroom trials in Switzerland that cost Sheikh Ahmad his position on the International Olympic Committee.

Consequently, many Kuwaitis consider both princes to be tainted. Progressive and liberal supporters still back Ahmad, despite his having fallen out of favor with the late emir. Nasser carries more influence within the royal family. Last fall, his son was appointed as foreign minister, a post that the late emir held for 40 years. But Nasser also remains extremely controversial since his November 2011 resignation as prime minister, after popular protests targeted him for corruption. He has not held any government post since.

This leaves as de facto front-runner a third candidate — Sheikh Nasser Sabah, the late emir’s eldest son. Nasser Sabah’s long political career has touched on every aspect of the Kuwaiti state, and his reputation for competence probably brings public support. However, his Jabir lineage wins no favors from Salem princes.

He’s also fallen into royal feuding. Last year, Nasser Sabah raised the ire of conservative princes by investigating their involvement with a corruption scandal inside the Kuwaiti army’s investment fund. The outcry from that money-laundering scheme caused the government’s resignation in November 2019 and cost Nasser Sabah his position as defense minister.

So what do Kuwaitis think?

The fourth tension is popular pressure, which dovetails with the other three factors. Political opposition has always been an integral part of Kuwaiti politics, unique among the gulf kingdoms. Since the 2011-2012 Arab uprisings, major protests have been not only frequent, but also anchored in demands to eliminate endemic corruption within the state and monarchy.

Many Kuwaitis see a long road ahead, given the inconsistency of existing anti-corruption efforts. There have been symbolic actions, such as the July 2020 arrest of a Sabah prince involved with the international 1MBD banking scandal. But many activists have also suffered repression after exposing high-ranking figures for corruption, even if only via Twitter or WhatsApp.

In this context, the Kuwaiti monarchy faces a critical decision on whom to name as crown prince. Its succession lineup could trigger protests from a cynical public desiring a credible commitment to reform — as well as more infighting among the ruling family. The decision is likely to reshape Kuwait’s political future.

Sean Yom is an associate professor of political science at Temple University, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of “From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East” (Columbia University Press, 2016).

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