Kuwait’s succession has been messy, unlike the smoothly orchestrated successions in recent years in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai. The fact that the ruling Al Sabah had done nothing to address the fact that the Crown Prince when this year began, Sheikh Sa‘d al-‘Abdullah Al Sabah, was seriously ailing and, apparently, unable to rule, created a crisis dealt with somewhat awkwardly in January (See The Estimate, January 23, 2006). The awkwardness, including the spectacle of Parliament in effect deposing a sitting Amir, was followed by further surprises, including a decision by the new Amir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, to name both a Crown Prince and a Prime Minister from his own Jabir branch of the family. Thus the other branch, the Salims to which Sheikh Sa‘d belongs, which has generally alternated rule with the Jabir branch, found itself holding none of the top three posts of Amir, Crown Prince, or Prime Minister. Its most promising figure, Sheikh Dr. Muhammad al-Sabah al-Salim Al Sabah, remains Foreign Minister and has been made a Deputy Prime Minister, but many had expected him to be either Crown Prince or Prime Minister. The Salims have been generally excluded from major posts except for Sheikh Dr. Muhammad and for the now senior figure on the Salim side (other than the now ex-Amir Sheikh Sa‘d), National Guard Commander Sheikh Salim al-‘Ali.
The Jabir side of the family, and especially the Ahmad al-Jabir line of the late Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah, is now dominant. The former ruler, Sheikh Jabir, has been succeeded (with the brief interlude of Sheikh Sa‘d, who was never administered the oath of office) by his brother Sheikh Sabah, who has named another brother, Sheikh Nawwaf, as Crown Prince and a nephew (son of yet another brother), Sheikh Nasir al-Ahmad, as Prime Minister. The son of yet another brother, Fahd (the only senior Sabah to die during the Iraqi invasion), is Oil Minister.
There are some indications that many Kuwaitis are not entirely happy with the messiness of the succession. This Dossier looks at some of the issues and profiles the new Crown Prince and the new Prime Minister.
The Al Sabah have ruled Kuwait since 1756, when a group of tribes settled around the great harbor that marks Kuwait city today. Since that time the Sabah family has ruled the amirate, although it has at times been subject to protection or sovereignty from the Ottoman Empire or the British. At the end of the 19th century there ruled a major figure in the country’s evolution, Mubarak Al Sabah, known as Mubarak the Great (Ruler 1896-1915). When Mubarak died, he was succeeded by his eldest son Jabir (ruled 1915-1917) and then his second son Salim (ruled 1917-1921). When Salim died, he was succeeded not by one of his sons but by Jabir’s son Ahmad, who ruled from 1921 until 1950, dominating Kuwait during the early 20th century. This pattern, alternating between the Jabir and the Salim lines, was followed again when Ahmad died, with ‘Abdullah al-Salim, son of Salim, succeeding and ruling from 1950 to 1965.
The alternation between the two lines was violated once in the 1960s, with ‘Abdullah al-Salim Al Sabah being succeeded, in 1965, by his brother Sabah al-Salim. But when Sabah al-Salim died in 1977, the rotation was resumed, with the throne passing to Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad Al Sabah, son of Ahmad al-Jabir. In keeping with the rotation tradition, Sheikh Jabir named a member of the Salim line, Sa‘d al-‘Abdullah al-Salim Al Sabah, as his crown prince. (For more on the background of the Sabahs, see the Dossier “Kuwait’s Political System: Part I, The Sabah Family,” in The Estimate for June 4, 1999.)
That is where matters remained through the end of 2005, but as the decades passed, Sheikh Jabir (apparently never a man of robust health) became more and more frail, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in the 1990s, while the Crown Prince, Sheikh Sa‘d, underwent surgery for colon cancer and spent much time out of the country. With both men ailing and in their 70s, in 2003 it was finally decided to break with the tradition of having the Crown Prince serve as Prime Minister. Instead the post of Prime Minister was separated and given to the longtime Foreign Minister (and brother of Sheikh Jabir), Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad. Sheikh Sa‘d remained as Crown Prince, however.
For the past two years or so, there has been considerable evidence of concern within the Sabah family about the problem of the two ailing men at the top. The head of the National Guard, Sheikh Salim al-‘Ali Al Sabah, a member of the Salim branch of the family, openly called for decisions to be made on the line of succession. While the internal debates of the ruling house are of course unknown, it was clear from the Kuwaiti press that there were divisions within the Sabah family about how to deal with the problem.
Sheikh Salim al-‘Ali’s concerns were presumably driven by his desire to see the Salim line have its chance at ruling again. If the Crown Prince died before the Amir, it would be possible to name another Crown Prince from the Salim line (and the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Dr. Muhammad al-Sabah al-Salim, a former Ambassador to the US, was a respected possible candidate from the next generation). But if the Amir died first, it was clear that Sheikh Sa‘d would have a very short rule if he were able to rule at all; the succession might quickly revert to the Jabir line.
The debate did not produce any changes in the line of sucession; then, on January 15, the Amir, Sheikh Jabir, died.
Initially, it was announced that Sheikh Sa‘d had succeeded as planned. But the Constitution requires that the Amir be sworn in before Parliament, and the oath of office is complex; soon the word began to spread that Sheikh Sa‘d was unable to take the oath in full. (Some reports suggested that he suffers from Alzheimers or some other debilitating disease; it seems generally agreed that he was unable to speak, at least at any length.)
Although there was some discussion of shortening the oath or allowing him to take an abridged version, it soon became clear that Kuwait was facing a dynastic crisis. The new Amir could not be sworn in and could not rule, but there was also no clear-cut procedure for choosing the next in line.
Admittedly, few doubted that the Prime Minister, Sabah al-Ahmad, who had been running the country more or less by himself since 2003 (and in reality, even earlier) was capable of continuing to do so, this time officially. But he was a member of the Jabir line, and that would leave the Salims out.
Intensive negotiations went on during the last days of January. It was clear that the Salims were resisting an abdication on the part of Sheikh Sa‘d, and it was generally assumed that they would have to get a new Crown Prince, perhaps a younger Salim like the Foreign Minister, who at 50 would stand a good chance of having a lengthy reign.
There is still some confusion as to what, precisely, happened. There was reportedly an agreement on the part of the Salims to have Sa‘d abdicate, but Parliament was moving forward with its own plan to depose the Amir on the grounds that he could not carry out his constitutional duties. When the expected abdication message did not reach Parliament as expected on the morning of January 24, Parliament moved ahead on its own. It waited several hours and then voted to depose Sheikh Sa‘d as Amir; his abdication finally arrived, reportedly, just as the vote was being taken.
Thus Kuwait experienced a moment of constitutional monarchy: Parliament formally removed the Amir before his abdication reached it.
But the story did not end then. Sabah al-Ahmad was duly sworn in as the new Amir. For the first week of February there was intense speculation about whom he would choose as Crown Prince, with presumed pressure on the part of the Salims for one of their own.
That did not, however, happen, When the Amir finally issued his decree on February 7, he named his brother, Nawwaf al-Ahmad, as the new Crown Prince and his nephew, Nasir al-Muhammad al-Ahmad, as the Prime Minister. The Crown Prince and the premiership remained separated, but neither job went to a Salim. Sheikh Dr. Muhammad al-Sabah al-Salim remained Foreign Minister and was given the additional post of Deputy Prime Minister, but the Salims received little else.
Reports from Kuwait indicate that the appointments may not be wildly popular. It is clear that there is a certain shortage of figures in the Salim line with suitable government experience and talent, but Muhammad al-Sabah al-Salim is the obvious exception, a figure well known in the West (and especially in Washington where he served as Ambassador), and with an earned doctorate in economics. If not an obvious candidate for Crown Prince (the family may not be ready to move to the next generation), many at least thought he would get the Prime Ministry.
The new Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasir, served under Sabah al-Ahmad as Minister of State when Sabah (now the Amir) was Foreign Minister, more recently headed the Amiri Diwan under Sheikh Jabir, and is a trained diplomat who speaks English, French and Persian as well as Arabic. The choice for Crown Prince, however, was a bit more surprising.
It is true that Sheikh Nawwaf has held a number of important posts, including several stints in both the Interior and Defense Ministries, but he has also been relegated to less senior posts after holding those. A number of early assessments were cautious in speaking of him as an “amiable,” “approachable,” and otherwise friendly figure, but little was said in praise of his brilliance, talent, or other qualifications.
In addition to some apparent disappointment on the part of many Kuwaitis — who, with a vigorous press and an elected Parliament, are generally more politically sophisticated than in some other Gulf states — there was also some comment on the fact that matters had gone so much more smoothly in Saudi Arabia last year and Dubai this year, wherethe succession was clearly established well in advance and was carried out smoothly with scarcely a bump in the road.
The reaction of the Salims is unclear. Sheikh Dr. Muhammad al-Sabah al-Salim is the only senior Salim in government proper, and is a Deputy Prime Minister as well as remaining Foreign Minister, but otherwise the Jabir line is dominant throughout the Cabinet. Not only did Ahmad al-Jabir govern Kuwait from 1921 to 1950, but now two of his sons, Jabir and Sabah, have governed from 1977 into the future (with only a few days’ unsworn rule by Sheikh Sa‘d in between), and with a third son of Ahmad now named as Crown Prince.
It is true that the rotation was missed once before, when two Salims held the post in succession in the period 1950-1977; perhaps the Jabirs are merely claiming the same right. But the absence of senior Salims is increasingly visible, and it may be that the period of rotation is coming to an end.
Prior to the British departure from east of Suez in 1971, many of the Gulf states had very messy successions, with brothers or sons either killing or at least exiling their predecessor. Since 1971 succession has generally been better governed, with mostly peaceable and natural succession (though the ruler of Qatar deposed his father in 1995). In Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia the royal families clearly allocated power well in advance of the death of the ruler, and when the death came, the successions were smooth. It is clear that Kuwait’s Sabahs either lacked the foresight or the will to do the same, and the succession, while non-violent, was messy, but with a constitutional process that worked, something rather impressive in its own right.
The New Crown Prince:
Sheikh Nawwaf al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah
Crown Prince Sheikh Nawwaf al-Ahmad
As noted, the succession of Sheikh Nawwaf al-Ahmad as Crown Prince was something of a surprise, not only because it retained the succession in the Jabir branch of the family, but because Nawwaf has not been considered one of the most eminent of the senior princes, though he has held many senior posts.
Born in 1937 as a son of Sheikh Ahmad al-Jab ir Al Sabah (Amir of Kuwait 1921-1950), if he eventually succeeds he would be the third son of Sheikh Ahmad to rule Kuwait after his brothers Sheikh Jabir (1977-2006) and Sheikh Sabah (2006-), the current Amir. The new Prime Minister is the son of his brother Sheikh Muhammad. Another brother, Sheikh Fahd, was the most senior Sabah killed during the Iraqi invasion of 1990, and Fahd’s son Ahmad is the Oil Minister. (“Brother” in this context is used to include half brothers, given the fact that Sheikh Ahmad al-Jabir had multiple wives.)
Nawwaf was educated in Kuwaiti schools and in 1962 was named Governor of al-Hawali. In March of 1978 he was named Minister of the Interior, a post he would also hold between 1986 and 1988, being named Defense Minister for the first time in the latter year. He was reappointed Defense Minister in 1990.
In the wake of the Iraqi invasion and the liberation of Kuwait, Nawwaf in 1991 was named Minister of Social Affairs and Labor. At the time this was seen as a demotion from his earlier posts of Interior and Defense. In 1994 he was named Deputy to the National Guard Commander, with the rank of Minister. In July of 2003 he was named Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, the latter post yet again.
During his various tenures of the Interior Ministry Sheikh Nawwaf is credited with creating the Legal Department of the Interior Ministry and also the Department of Mukhtars’ Affairs (Mayors’ Affairs). In the Defense Ministry he established the Legal Affairs and Private Contracts Affairs Departments. (In the new Cabinet, the Defense Minister, Sheikh Jabir al-Mubarak, will hold the Defense and Interior portfolios.)
Sheikh Nawwaf is a horseman, and has four sons and a daughter. Many Kuwaitis have described him as amiable and accessible, but he has not generally been considered, so far as one can determine, one of the most talented members of the royal family.
The New Prime Minister:
Shiekh Nasir al-Muhammad al-Ahmad Al Sabah
Shiekh Nasir al-Muhammad
Kuwait’s new Prime Minister is a nephew of its new Ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, and its new Crown Prince, Sheikh Nawwaf al-Ahmad. Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad al-Ahmad is the son of Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah, a brother who among other posts held the Defense Ministry for a time in the early 1960s.
Sheikh Nasir is a veteran diplomat. Born in 1940, he did his secondary schooling in the United Kingdom, then completed a diplome in the French language in Geneva in 1960 and took a baccalaureate in politics and economics from the University of Geneva in 1964. He is fluent in French and English as well as Arabic, and also knows some Persian.
Sheikh Nasir was named Second Secretary in the Foreign Ministry in 1964, and then served as a member of Kuwait’s Permanent Delegation to the United Nations in the same year. In June of 1965 he returned to Kuwait to serve in the diwan of the Foreign Ministry, and later that year achieved the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in the Foreign Ministry. He served as Kuwait’s Permanent Representative to the UN’s European offices in Geneva.
In 1968 he was named Kuwait’s Ambassador to Iran, and in 1971 to Afghanistan.
From 1975 to 1979 he served as Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Iran, said to be the youngest such dean in the world.
In May of 1979 he returned to serve in the Diwan of the Foreign Ministry and from 1979 to 1985 he was Deputy Minister of Information and then Minister of Information from 1985 until 1988. In 1990 he became Minister of State for Foreign Affairs under Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, now the Amir; he held that post until 1998 when he was named Minister of the Amiri Diwan, the equivalent of head of the Royal Court, by the late Sheikh Jabir. He held that post until his appointment as Prime Minister. Presumably his years of serving as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs when Sheikh Sabah was Foreign Minister is responsible for his appointment by the Amir to the Prime Ministry.