It is said that the best fishermen are both patient and persistent, attentive to conditions that yield from past outings. Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, whose death was announced on September 29, lived a full life at the center of Kuwait’s politics – as foreign minister, prime minister, and, finally, emir – and was an accomplished angler. As a diplomat and statesman of a proud but small Gulf country, he patiently worked to leverage Kuwait’s oil economy, business acumen, and mediation skills into greater influence in the region and on the world stage. That same persistence was needed at home where the contentious politics of Kuwait’s diverse political societies often thwart national consensus and tempt the intervention of neighboring monarchs uneasy with Kuwait’s parliamentary model. The experienced hand of the man known for his love of fishing will be missed as Kuwait navigates the choppy waters of today’s Gulf.
Sabah al-Ahmed had an extraordinarily long diplomatic career. During his 40 years as Kuwait’s foreign minister, he demonstrated an appreciation of Kuwait’s limitations as a small state and pursued an active agenda to compensate for them. He pioneered Kuwait’s policy of maintaining good relations with a broad array of countries, balancing between great powers and championing Arab and nonaligned movements. Kuwait’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs built under Sabah al-Ahmed maintains extensive foreign missions for its size, while subsidizing foreign countries to keep embassies in Kuwait.
Sabah al-Ahmed long promoted Kuwait’s extensive humanitarian portfolio. Most recently, Kuwait has contributed to regional stability through its hosting of international donor conferences for Syria and Iraq in addition to its provision of other forms of direct aid. Kuwait’s enduring leadership in this area prompted United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to recognize Sabah al-Ahmed as a humanitarian leader in 2014.
Yet, Kuwait’s active outreach has not eliminated its vulnerability – vividly illustrated by Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990, which almost cost Kuwait its sovereignty. This painful experience amplified Sabah al-Ahmed’s appreciation for the United States and the international community that came to Kuwait’s defense. Kuwait deepened its military and political cooperation with the United States, a partnership recently recognized by the administration of President Donald J. Trump, which awarded the emir with the U.S. Legion of Merit, Degree Chief Commander. Sabah al-Ahmed championed Kuwait’s enthusiastic participation in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. His belief in multilateralism as a means to bolster Kuwait’s security also played out at the regional level. He was a pivotal force behind the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 and has been its most vigorous defender.
This commitment to multilateralism has been augmented by active Kuwaiti mediation to resolve regional conflicts. In the face of escalating Gulf tensions with neighboring Iran, Sabah al-Ahmed continued to look for diplomatic openings, personally traveling to the country in 2014 and launching a dialogue with the Islamic Republic in 2017. Sabah al-Ahmed was also deeply troubled by the deepening rift among Gulf countries shaped by the Saudi- and Emirati-led boycott of Qatar. More than any other individual, he struggled to find a formula that would end this dispute, which threatens to render the GCC irrelevant.
Father of Kuwait
In 2003, Emir Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah entrusted Sabah al-Ahmed with the leadership of government, a position traditionally held by the crown prince. As prime minister, Sabah al-Ahmed moved from mediating between states to managing Kuwait’s rival political factions. He proved a skillful politician. In 2005, Sabah al-Ahmed played a pivotal role in shepherding the passage of women’s enfranchisement through the Parliament, six years after the National Assembly had rejected granting women political rights by two votes. This same political skill was on display as he successfully navigated both family and parliamentary deliberations to emerge as Jaber al-Ahmed’s successor as emir in 2006. This unconventional succession occurred after the crown prince, Saad Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, was deemed unfit and removed from office, opening the door to Sabah al-Ahmed.
The sharp competitiveness that brought him to the pinnacle of power in Kuwait seemed to diminish once that was achieved. As emir, Sabah al-Ahmed assumed more of a balancing role, refereeing the fight between next-generation rivals and checking rising sociopolitical tensions between merchants and populists, liberals and Islamists, Shias and Sunnis. Over the past decade, there has been an entrenchment of moneyed interests in the country and the return of prominent business families to the Parliament, accompanied by a growing populism in response. Youth protests that began in 2006 gained greater ferocity in 2010-12, criticizing the emir for a certain passivity in countering corruption within elements of the ruling elite and insufficient urgency in reforming Kuwait’s bloated government to meet the challenge of a post-oil future.
Nonetheless, as regional troubles threatened to overwhelm the small emirate, the emir’s repeated appeals for political restraint and preservation of national unity gained greater reception. This was most evident in 2015 when Kuwait suffered its worst attack since the Gulf War, a suicide bombing by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants of the Imam Sadiq Mosque that left 27 people dead. The emir’s arrival at the mosque as security was just being established, and his emotional embrace of the fallen Shia worshipers as his children, was one of his greatest acts of leadership, with the ensuing prayers held at Kuwait’s Grand Mosque an encapsulation of national unity in the face of the sectarian violence poisoning the region.
This appreciation for the emir’s political acumen has grown further with his handling of the Gulf crisis, positioning Kuwait apart from rival Qatar and the quartet of boycotting countries, assuming the role of defender of the GCC and Gulf solidarity.
The passing of Sabah al-Ahmed thrusts Kuwait into a number of related and potentially perilous transitions. Without the emir’s balancing role, some domestic and regional rivalries threaten to spiral out of control.
Crown Prince Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah is expected to assume leadership and may provide a welcome respite of unity in transition. Yet, 83 years old and without any clear national program, his reign is unlikely to deter the sharp competition already underway to claim the title of his successor.
That struggle has been underway for a decade in a surprisingly public contest, initially between rival nephews to the emir, former Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah and the former planning minister and relative outsider, Ahmed al-Fahd al-Sabah. Their public campaign is thought to have damaged them both, although Nasser al-Mohammed has cultivated a formidable network of supporters in family and political circles and remains in active contact with the international diplomatic community. Today his main rival is likely his senior within the ruling Al Sabah family, the deputy head of the national guard, Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who has an edge by traditional criteria. The outsider role has been assumed – ironically – by the emir’s own son, Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who has been waging a public campaign to combat government corruption. Nasser Sabah’s revelations of embezzlement under his predecessor as minister of defense felled the last government and lost him his government post. More recently, he has been urging the prosecution of senior royals, including the son of the previous prime minister, for his involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, scandal.
Unique among Gulf monarchies, the Parliament will have a say in this transition: Kuwait’s Constitution gives Parliament the right to approve the emir’s selection of crown prince, and, if rejected, to choose among at least three more candidates proposed by the emir. This conveys influence to the charismatic head of parliament, Marzouq al-Ghanem, as well as perhaps the current head of government, former Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah. The two have at times been at loggerheads.
Regardless of which of the leading contenders prevails, Kuwait will have both an emir and crown prince over 70 years old. This stands in contrast with Kuwait’s young population and places Kuwait out of step with the regional elevation of young princes, which brought to the fore ambitious leaders in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. These leaders have demonstrated less deference for their elders and more determination to assert national interests beyond the U.S. security umbrella. This has included a willingness to challenge Gulf ruling houses directly, evident in the Saudi- and Emirati-led denunciations of Qatari leadership. At times, these regional rivalries have threatened to ensnare Kuwait, most evident in social media campaigns where nationalist accounts close to power in these states have not held back from critical commentary concerning domestic Kuwaiti politics. This kind of media intervention, coming at a sensitive time, raises the specter of Gulf influence campaigns in Kuwait, a possibility facilitated by the openness of Kuwait’s political system and debate.
Kuwaitis are certain to rally around Nawaf al-Ahmed, a popular figure perceived outside of the predominant political rivalries. But as the contest for his successor heats up, it remains to be seen whether the Kuwaiti leadership will have the determination to preserve that domestic political space, unique within the Gulf, and the skills to execute an independent approach that maximizes Kuwait’s prerogative in foreign affairs without provoking its powerful neighbors.