The passing of Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah closes a dramatic and historic chapter in Kuwait history. Sheikh Sabah leaves a legacy created by leading Kuwait through its first two generations as a fully independent state. History will cement his legacy as one of the founding fathers of a prosperous and progressive democratic Kuwaiti state, the driving force behind the Gulf Cooperation Council, a determined wartime leader and a respected mediator in seeking solutions to regional disputes. His passing in 2020 brackets an era as Kuwait and the Gulf region writ large face economic and strategic challenges that threaten to change the political, strategic and economic structures of the Gulf in an unprecedented fashion.
His Lived Experiences are Matched by None
His birth in 1929 came at a critical point in Kuwaiti history. At the time of his birth Kuwait was in the ninth year of crushing embargo imposed by Saudi King Abdul Aziz bin Saud because Sheikh Sabah’s father, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah resisted Saudi expansionism. The embargo, which was not lifted until 1942, combined with the collapse of the pearl trade in 1927 impoverished Kuwait. Sheikh Sabah passed his formative years watching his country struggle until the discovery of oil in 1938 allowed it to breathe once again.
His mentor and then-Emir Sheikh Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah recognized the diplomatic acumen and appointed him Kuwait’s second foreign minister thus launching an almost unbroken forty year career managing his country’s international interests through the reign of three rulers before himself succeeding to power. Sheikh Abdullah, Sheikh Sabah’s mentor, left behind a lasting legacy as “the father of democracy” not only for shepherding Kuwait’s transition out of the colonial era but also for establishing the National Assembly that very same year.
Sheikh Sabah’s tenure as minister of foreign affairs began just two years after Kuwait gained independence from the British protectorate and continued well beyond the Iraqi invasion of 1990. During his almost six decades of being both a key orchestrator of Kuwait’s foreign policy and then as ruler of the country Sheikh Sabah guided Kuwait and left a lasting imprint on the strategic developments of the larger Gulf region through several of the most dramatic and transcendental events. Kuwait drove the creation of the GCC under his stewardship as foreign minister. He dealt with the changes and ambiguities of the region’s Western security guarantors and with the threats posed by larger, more powerful predatory neighbors.
After his accession to the throne in 2006 he remained a rock of stability, both foreign and domestic. Unlike many other Arab regimes, Sheikh Sabah and his governments dealt effectively with the Arab Spring, deftly balancing Kuwait’s factious domestic politics by navigating through the conflicting interests of the country’s different often opposing political blocs, the Islamists, liberals, populists, the business elite, the Shia, and most importantly the emergent youth majority. He managed to overcome one of the most delicate and complex challenges in the wake of the Arab Spring when Kuwait witnessed one of the largest youth movements in the collective GCC. Although under his reign there was unyielding criticism by oppositional forces for the multiple accounts of dissolving the parliament; the implementation of controversial electoral reforms; and the unusually harsh and excessive force used to disperse protestors, Kuwait’s response to the Arab Spring paled compared to the level of repression exercised in other GCC nations.
Understanding of Structural Dilemmas Faced by Small States
Sheikh Sabah fully understood the structural dilemmas and challenges faced by smaller Gulf states in a hostile neighborhood surrounded by ambitious regional powers. The modern history of the Gulf has seen many shifts in power dynamics leading stronger states to cast covetous eyes on their smaller neighbors. He spent his life countering these ambitions.
To the very end, Emir dedicated himself to small state security and GCC unity, best illustrated by his tireless determination to resolve the Gulf crisis. He refused to bow to the overwhelming pressures to capitulate and join the blockading states in their dispute against Qatar. The late Emir remained neutral, fully cognizant that neutrality itself angers one or the other of the opposing sides. It may well be that his first-hand experience of the consequences of an economic embargo during his formative years inspired his determination to resolve the Gulf crisis amicably.
The Emir knew that one could disarm larger regional threats by uniting Arab Gulf states under one brotherly umbrella in the best traditions of the Gulf. Hence, he was instrumental in the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council. One of the greatest diplomatic setbacks for the Emir’s vision of Gulf unity was the 2017 Gulf crisis which may well be the death knell of the GCC as an institution. Sheikh Sabah was an advocate of the efficacy of his generation’s traditional mechanism of conflict resolution, namely the Khaleeji tradition of “nose kissing” as a face-saving practice by leaders to resolve issues by exchanging pleasantries and dialogue. Now, it has been abandoned as obsolete by the GCC’s new generation of leaders.
Managing Anarchy and Shifts in Regional Power Brokers
The Gulf’s long history of relying on foreign security guarantors often created severe challenges and vulnerabilities for the small states such as Kuwait when the previous foreign protecting powers abandoned their roles and new ones stepped in. These transitions often resulted in periods of disorder until the vacuums were filled. Sheikh Sabah demonstrated he could successfully manage these transitions. When the British withdrew from the Gulf in 1971, the U.S. did not move immediately to fill the security vacuum. The uncertainty of outside guarantors created threats to Kuwait’s territorial integrity from Iraq and Saudi Arabia, both seeking to revive historic claims to Kuwaiti territory. Sheikh Sabah managed to energize the US and UK to deter neighborly adventurism.
Now we find history repeating itself as we fast-forward to the 21st century. The publicly declared intent of the American government to change its security role in the region has left small states such as Kuwait feeling insecure while emboldening Iran and the larger GCC states with hegemonic ambitions. It is not an exaggeration to state that Gulf region security structures are entering a state of anarchy. The Kuwaiti leadership, for the first time in more than sixty years, will unfortunately have to navigate challenges to their vital interests but without the guidance of their wise elder statesman, Shaikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah.
Kuwait’s Transition to New Leadership
The new Emir Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah is a seasoned politician who has held high office in Kuwait for decades. He has served as a defense minister and interior minister. Kuwaiti elite circles expect little change in Kuwait’s foreign policy under the new Emir Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah. However, the economic downturn created by the pandemic and the drop in oil prices has caused the highest budget deficit in Kuwait’s history, a situation demanding accelerated domestic reforms. It will be important to closely watch Kuwait’s 2020 November elections since the next Parliament will likely lay a key role in negotiating such reforms. Furthermore, Sheikh Nawaf has not yet indicated how soon he will appoint the Crown Prince who could end up being confirmed by the new parliament.
Kuwait’s succession laws differ greatly from those of other GCC states and the selection of the next Crown Prince could be contentious. In the current circumstances, it is highly unlikely that Kuwait will follow the trend among most other states in the GCC of installing younger, and bolder, leadership. Again differing from the neighboring states, Kuwaiti law requires that the Family Council select the next crown prince from the ruling family and nominate his name for approval by a majority vote in the National Assembly within one year after the new monarch ascends the throne. If the nominee fails to win approval, the Emir must submit the names of three eligible members of the family to the National Assembly from whose number the National Assembly will pick the crown prince.
Speculation abounds as to who will be the next Crown Prince. There are three key names from the al-Jaber branch that are plausible candidates. First, Sheikh Nasser bin Sabah al-Sabah, the late Emir’s eldest son and former defense minister and deputy prime minister. He recently has been raising his profile as a combatant of corruption and a key engineer of Kuwait’s Vision 2035. Both are crucial issues that are key to garnering support of the Kuwaiti population but it is important to remember that he was removed from his last government post after making public corruption accusations against other government officials. The other prospective crown prince could be Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah who has strong support among important political and economic elites in Kuwait but his reputation has been tainted given that he was the focus of anti-government protests, which ultimately led to his resignation from his position as prime minister. The third possible candidate is Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmed al-Jaber, the brother of the late Emir and the Deputy National Guard Commander and he interestingly was the one that accompanied the late emir to the US for medical treatment. There are some discussions about Mohamed bin Sabah al-Sabah, the former foreign minister who comes from the sidelined al-Salim branch, but it is a longshot if recent history offers any lessons for the future emir’s seat.
Traditionally, succession in Kuwait should alternate between two branches of the al-Sabah family: the al-Salim and al-Jaber. However, this rule of succession has not been observed religiously. In 1956, the al-Salim branch succeeded to the throne for a second term when Sabah Salim al-Mubarak al-Sabah succeeded his brother as Emir. More recently the al-Jaber branch have occupied Emir position for an unprecedented three terms in a row for fifty-three years from 1977 to 2020. The Kuwaiti National Assembly is arguably the most powerful parliament in the Arab World. It set a historical precedent in 2006 when it deposed the Emir, Sheikh Saad al-Salim al-Sabah (albeit due to dire health issues) and appointed another, the late Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah. For the first time in Gulf history a democratically elected legislative body deposed a ruler.
The late emir has been admired by Kuwaitis and world leaders alike as the architect of Kuwait’s modern foreign policy and mediator in some of the most calamitous regional crises. The upcoming months in Kuwait will be occupied with the political maneuvering and posturing for not only the crown prince position but also from those campaigning to gain a seat in the National Assembly. By the end of 2020 Kuwait will likely have a new government ready to tackle what’s in store for 2021 — one can hope that economic reforms will be the priority on the agenda.
Kuwaitis will of course mourn the loss of the late emir, but Kuwait will endure as it is grounded in a strong political and institutional framework. The leaders in the Gulf region ought to be the ones grieving the most as the fragile and divided GCC has lost its greatest mediator.
Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum and a Professorial Lecturer at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.