Kuwait on Wednesday swore in its new emir, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, and prepared to receive the body of his half-brother, the late ruler Sheikh Sabah who died in the US at the age of 91.
Sheikh Nawaf was visibly emotional as he addressed the National Assembly a day after the death of the emir, an acclaimed diplomat and mediator who ruled for 14 years.
“I promise you that I will do my best and everything in my power to preserve Kuwait, its security and stability, and to ensure the dignity and well-being of the people,” the 83-year-old said after taking the oath of office.
He called for unity against the challenges that face the region, and committed himself to Kuwait’s “democratic approach” in the address before lawmakers, who sat socially distanced and in masks in line with coronavirus precautions.
Kuwait, unlike other Gulf states, has a lively political arena with a fully elected parliament that enjoys wide legislative powers and can vote ministers out of office.
The remains of Sheikh Sabah were expected to arrive in Kuwait City later Wednesday, on a flight from Minnesota where he had been undergoing treatment in hospital since July.
According to the royal court, the funeral will be “restricted to the emir’s relatives” – a move likely designed to avoid large crowds amid the pandemic. The country has begun 40 days of national mourning.
Arab ‘safety valve’
Sheikh Sabah earned a reputation as a shrewd, unshakeable leader who helped steer his country through the 1990 Iraqi invasion, crashes in global oil markets and upheavals in parliament and on the streets.
World leaders and Kuwaitis alike have hailed the legacy of the late emir, architect of the nation’s modern foreign policy and mediator in some of the worst crises to grip the Gulf.
“This man was the safety valve of the Arab world, not just for Kuwait,” Bandar al-Dahani, a Kuwaiti citizen, told AFP.
“God willing, that goodness will be in Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf and he will follow the emir’s path.”
Sheikh Nawaf, who has held high office for decades, takes over with Kuwait facing the repercussions of the coronavirus crisis, which triggered a sharp decline in oil prices and severe economic consequences for Gulf states.
The elder statesman, who was named heir apparent in 2006, served as defense minister when Iraqi troops rolled into the oil-rich emirate in 1990, and also as interior minister in the face of challenges from Islamist militants.
The new leader is popular within the ruling Al-Sabah family and is reported to have been a consensus choice for ruler. He also enjoys a reputation for modesty and has largely maintained a low profile.
A changing region
Major policy changes are not expected during Nawaf’s reign. However, the Gulf underwent a seismic shift in recent weeks, with Kuwait’s neighbors, the UAE and Bahrain, opting to establish relations with Israel.
Normalization with the Jewish state is highly unpopular among the Kuwaiti public, which largely supports the Arab world’s historic position of demanding a resolution of the Palestinian cause before making diplomatic concessions to Israel.
Despite expectations of a smooth succession, there could be more spirited debate over who the new crown prince should be.
Kuwait’s constitution stipulates that the ruler should be a descendant of the nation’s founder, Mubarak al-Sabah, but the throne has alternated between the descendants of his sons, Salem and Jaber, for four decades.
Contestants for the newly vacated role of crown prince include Sheikh Sabah’s son and former deputy prime minister Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti political heavyweight.
“Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed should be viewed more as a caretaker than as a watershed new leader,” said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Behind the scenes, however, younger princes would likely continue to compete to succeed him.”