Historic change in Kuwait

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

The announcement of a new crown prince in Kuwait marks a historic shift in the royal family’s approach to succession, reports Ahmed Mustafa

Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (R) and Kuwait s Crown Prince Sheikh Sabah K
Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (R) and Kuwait s Crown Prince Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Hamad al-Sabah


Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid Al Hamad Al Mubarak Al Sabah was sworn in as the new crown prince of Kuwait, after an Emiri decree nominated him as next in line to rule. The Emir, Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, took the long anticipated decision after dissolving parliament and suspending some provisions of the constitution last month. The Emir had been expected to choose his heir since he took office in December and he blamed the political debacles caused by some MPs for the delay.

Kuwait, unlike the rest of the Gulf countries, has a strong legislature and MPs often bring governments down by questioning ministers and rejecting draft laws. Taking an unprecedented step earlier in May, the Emir accused lawmakers of “going as far as to interfere in the heart of the Emir’s powers and his choice of his crown prince, forgetting that this is an explicit constitutional right of the Emir”.

Actually, the new Crown Prince Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid previously served as prime minister from 2019 until 2022, when he resigned after facing a combative legislature as the head of the cabinet, with opposition MPs bent on questioning him over issues including perceived corruption. Before that he had served for eight years as Kuwait’s foreign minister. He has also held other ministerial positions, ranging from justice to labour, spending almost 45 years in government. Sheikh Sabah is a political science graduate of Kuwait University, and has been immersed in public service since graduation. This gives him vast knowledge of the internal mechanisms of government.

Born in 1953, the crown prince is almost 13 years younger than the Emir who is 83 years old. His choice reaffirms the rule of the Al Sabah family and guarantees continuity at “Kuwait’s pace”, as Kuwait University political scientist Bader Al Saif wrote on X.

The move is considered a historic change in the mode of succession for many reasons. First, when Sheikh Sabah assumes power he will be the first Kuwaiti Emir who is not the son of the Emir. Secondly, and probably most importantly for the family’s internal cohesion, he is the first to be in the line of succession from the Al Hamad branch of the Al Mubarak line in the Al Sabah Family. Succession has always alternated between the Al Jaber and Al Salem branches. The current Emir, Sheikh Meshal, is from the Al Jaber branch.

Though the crown prince is an Al Hamad, he is the nephew of the Emir and the grandson of Sheikh Ahmad Al Jaber; his mother is Shaikha Moza Al Ahmad Al Jaber. He is also married into the Al Salem branch of the family. Sheikh Sabah therefore represents all three branches of the ruling family, safeguarding cohesion.

The crown prince is also the first former PM to be brought back to government in the second highest position. As Al Saif says, this “adds immunity and resilience to the PM post even if matters go haywire for whatever reason in parliament.” He adds that the historic change “shall further unify the ruling family and set the stage for realignment among its future leaders”.

Most importantly, whether for Kuwaitis or outside Kuwait, the Emir’s decision to appoint his crown prince means that the government is back in control after it ended the hassle of parliament and other political hurdles. In his speech announcing the dissolution of parliament, the Emir said, “we have faced difficulties and obstacles that cannot be tolerated.” This is now over for at least four years.

A government can now function without the threat of resignation every few months, and urgent bills can be issued to reform the economy and social issues. Though Kuwait sits on the six largest oil reserves in the world, its government faced economic hardship that required a change in the law to allow public borrowing and other measures.

The parliament has always prevented the government from borrowing to fill deficit gaps in the budget, while MPs oppose any reform of the welfare state that is consuming a hefty chunk of the treasury coffers. The choice of the new crown prince might be a historic change in many respects, but analysts have also noted that change in the socio-economic arena might not be as fast or as drastic.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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