27.10.2020 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Kuwait Stands on the Cusp of Future Changes

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The sad news from Kuwait, where Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah died at the age of 91, literally rocked the entire world. A special session of the UN General Assembly was held that was dedicated to this event, where delegates from all over the world observed a minute of silence for the loss of an intelligent, virtuous ruler who was presented with a Humanitarian Award in memory of his legacy marked by humanism, diplomacy, peacekeeping efforts, and peaceful conflict resolution.

After these mournful events, Kuwait and its people were faced with the issue of choosing their top leadership. A number of political observers attempting to gain information capital for themselves prognosticated a certain exacerbation of the situation, and some kind of struggle among clans during the process of appointing an emir and crown prince. But everything happened surprisingly seamlessly, quickly, and calmly, which was something welcomed by all Kuwaitis. The thing is that the emirate is a constitutional monarchy, where the post of emir, by law, is transferred to the crown prince from the House of Al Sabah. That is why the former Crown Prince Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah became the new emir of Kuwait without any major problems, and members of the other governing authorities swore allegiance to him.

However, the vacancy for the post of crown prince touched off deep deliberation and debate, and even, as the well-informed Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper wrote, a “behind-the-scenes race” to choose the next leader of Kuwait. These deliberations were compounded by the fact that the new emir is sick and elderly, although at present his underlying health is good. But, sooner or later, he may have serious health problems. Kuwaiti media outlets have chiefly avoided discussing the issue of succession to the throne in the country, focusing mainly on building a consensus among the ruling elites concerning the transition of power. However, publications and media outlets outside the emirate’s borders, mainly ones with ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, raised that issue long before the death of the former Emir of Sabah in September.

“The admission of the Emir of Kuwait to the hospital raises the issue of succession,” read the headline of the London-based Al Arab newspaper, widely known for its close ties to the UAE. This shed light on a number of influential figures in the ruling family that were in the running to be crown prince after Sheikh Nawaf took office. Citing sources in Kuwait, the newspaper reported that the question of who would succeed Sheikh Sabah was quickly settled in favor of his brother, Sheikh Nawaf. However, the issue of who would become the crown prince was even more important, since Sheikh Nawaf suffers from a rare blood disorder that has forced him to undergo treatment in the United States in recent years.

Ultimately, a consensus was reached and Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah became the new Crown Prince, who has shown himself to be a man with a strong personality.  Unlike a number of Kuwaitis, Sheikh Mishal has a bad relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which, along with his standoffish attitude towards Iran, made him the ideal choice for those in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Riyadh’s fondness for Sheikh Mishal was fully revealed during a telephone conversation with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, during which questions were raised about the kingdom’s plan to help Sheikh Mishal become the next Crown Prince of Kuwait, and therefore the future emir.

Diplomats and analysts say that due to his modest style and advanced age, Emir Nawaf could delegate most of his powers to Sheikh Mishal, an influential man that had served as deputy head of the National Guard since 2004, and before that headed the state security service for 13 years, avoiding roles in the public eye. However, the rise of Sheikh Mishal stands in contrast to that of other rulers in the Gulf countries, most notably in Saudi Arabia, where ruling families are beginning to give senior positions to younger princes.

The new emir and crown prince have a long history of helping forge Kuwait’s security services and military forces, and have spent most of their careers in the security and defense sectors. Sheikh Nawaf is considered to be the real founder of the modern-day Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior. He served as Minister of Interior for two terms, with the first from 1978 to 1988, and the second lasting from 2003 to 2006. Before taking office, he modernized the security services so that they could oppose the challenges facing the country. He also served as Defense Minister from 1988 to 1991, when Iraq’s disastrous invasion of Kuwait took place. In the first government, which was formed after the liberation of Kuwait, Sheikh Nawaf was appointed Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, and then Deputy Chief of the National Guard in 1994, later returning to the Ministry of the Interior in 2003. In 2006, he was appointed Crown Prince.

However, it should be pointed out that the current emir (83 years old) and the crown prince (80 years old) are elderly people, and represent the older generation in the ruling family. Therefore, it is highly likely that the current crown prince will be the last emir from the older generation, and will hand over power to a younger crown prince that will be able to rule for a lengthy period.  This may be the reason why media outlets and politicians in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were so interested in helping move forward the process of nominating a crown prince in Kuwait, which, incidentally, they did brilliantly. And this attests to the fact that the emirate will undoubtedly side with its richer, stronger neighbors in the upcoming decades.

Sheikh Nawaf is taking over as the country grapples with a deteriorating economy impacted by falling global oil prices, the coronavirus pandemic, a budget deficit, and a liquidity crisis. The oil-rich country faces hard choices: whether to establish relations with Israel, how to respond to the fall in oil prices in the context of the coronavirus crisis, and whether to make changes in the system of domestic and foreign policy. The new emir of Kuwait – Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, according to many experts, is likely to continue the path chosen by his brother, the late emir, especially in terms of foreign policy, although he will feel pressure from various powerful forces.  The new emir’s attention will be focused chiefly on domestic affairs, especially in the next few months as the country elects a new parliament in November. In his welcoming speech, the new emir promised to preserve the country’s security and the solidarity of its people.

Although Kuwait has some of the most impressive financial assets in the world, most of it belongs to the Future Generations Fund, and the law prohibits the government from withdrawing from that fund to replenish the budget. In August, parliament nevertheless passed a law repealing the provision that stipulates transferring 10 percent of the country’s income to the fund. Since the budget deficit is expected to be quite large this year, new laws need to be passed by the legislature to raise the debt ceiling so that the government can borrow more to cover the difference.  Kuwait is plagued by a liquidity crisis that has prompted warnings that it will not be able to pay salaries to its government employees. In August, Finance Minister Barrak Al-Shitan called on the government to pass a public debt law that would allow the country to borrow 20 billion KWD, or $66 billion, over 30 years. The liquidity crisis means that Kuwait may not be able to pay salaries to government workers after October, although it boasts a large sovereign wealth fund valued at $550 billion, which, incidentally, matches Russia’s gold and foreign exchange reserves.

Bloomberg expressed this more harshly, stating that Kuwait, as a global oil powerhouse, was flat busted. This was expanded upon by stating that this happened owing to a decrease in energy prices during the coronavirus pandemic, along with a decrease in oil revenues. It was reported that the national budget of Kuwait is too small, and at the moment it is not even enough to pay out salaries to civil servants.

These urgent domestic issues, as well as the upcoming elections next month, are the priorities for Kuwait’s new leadership. Foreign policy is not expected to undergo any major shifts, and is likely to stick to the course set by the late emir. One informed source in the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Al-Ahram Weekly: “I don’t think foreign policy will change much in the short term, because it is built on a solid foundation… but it could change over the long term… depending on many factors, both internal and external”.

Nowadays, Kuwait and its new rulers face very complex problems that need to be resolved quickly, explicitly, and in the interests of all Kuwaitis. However, the House of Al Sabah, whose members have ruled the emirate for about 400 years, have repeatedly faced more difficult challenges, and have always been able to resolve them in Kuwait’s favor.

Viktor Mikhin, a corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”. 

 


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