Though Sheikh Nawaf Al-Sabah was inaugurated as successor to the respected Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, he is unlikely to hold the position and/or the reins of true political power in Kuwait for very long. He is a placeholder pending parliamentary combat between the principal representatives of the two branches of the Al-Sabah Royal Family, each seeking to obtain a lot of majority for their rival visions of Kuwait’s future.
By Matthew Parish*
On 29 September 2020 the widely respected Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, in office since 2006, died at the venerable age of 91. On 30 September his octogenarian half-brother, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Sabah (age 83), was approved and inaugurated as his successor. But Sheikh Nawaf is most unlikely to hold the position and/or the reins of true political power in Kuwait for very long, if past precedent is anything to go by. He is a placeholder pending parliamentary combat between the principal representatives of the two branches of the Al-Sabah Royal Family, each seeking to obtain a lot of majority for their rival visions of Kuwait’s future.
Those individuals are Sheikh Ahmed (age 57), the most powerful financier in the world of international sport, of the Al-Salim branch of the family; and Sheikh Nasser (age 79), the former Prime Minister and de facto financier of the Royal Family, of the Al-Jaber branch of the family. Whereas the Emiracy traditionally alternated between these two branches of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, that pattern was disrupted when the US Government imposed a notionally democratic parliament, the Kuwaiti National Assembly, upon the monarchy as the price of evicting Iraqi military forces in the First Gulf War (1990-91).
Since then the Al-Salim branch has sided with the various factions in the Parliament, including Shia, Bedouins and women; while the Al-Jaber branch has represented more traditional ruling principles. With the death of Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, Kuwait is set for a contest between these two branches of the family, one of which represents a vision of a future for the city-state of something like moderate, modernist Dubai plus sports events; while the other represents a more conservative future – perhaps appropriately described as Jeddah by the Persian Gulf.
The recently installed interim Emir, Sheikh Nawaf, has little to no support in Parliament. An Emir who hopes to stay in the job must accrue that support in a critical period of coalition-building after the death of his predecessor. Sheikh Nasser and Sheikh Ahmed are therefore busy now seeking to obtain the votes necessary in Parliament for their election or that of one of their younger proxies subsequent to which, following precedent, the interim Crown Prince will abdicate in favour of the Parliamentary victor.
In anticipation of this struggle, Sheikh Nasser and Sheikh Ahmed have been fighting out a bizarre battle in the Geneva courts for several years about the veracity or otherwise of a series of videos purporting to show improper actions on the part of former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser. The legal dispute has ground on for some six or more years, and now appears inconclusive; it won’t be decided before the interim Emir abdicates.
Nevertheless this is a bizarre way to settle a Royal Family succession issue, amidst allegation and counter-allegation of forgery, corruption of the legal process, fraud and unlawful payments, and reports to and the active participation of some of the most prominent global intelligence agencies. Geneva’s legal system has proven insufficiently robust to the task of manage this stupefying Middle Eastern political mess.
The legal details of this extraordinary dispute, the longest running of its kind in Swiss legal history and one that does no honour to Swiss justice, in all likelihood do not matter for the purposes of peace in the Middle East. True, Kuwait has a formidable reputation for corruption, and the allegations and counter-allegations hurled around so liberally in a Geneva court do little more than confirm this and cast some shame upon the State of Kuwait. Nevertheless the more important question may be which of these two men have the more statesmanlike qualities to occupy one of the most important jobs in the Middle East. The Emir must seek to form consensus in the Gulf Cooperation Council through compromise. He must also serve as a mediator for the relentless hostilities between the United States and Iran, and other regional disputes such as that between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Measured by these metrics of political stature, Sheikh Nasser is surely the more formidable of the two potential regional leaders. While his reign as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2011 was marred by allegations of corruption in inducing parliamentarians to support his agenda, his opponent Sheikh Ahmed seems far worse, the subject of various FBI investigations relating to his domination of sporting bodies by allegedly paying small countries for their votes to elect his preferred officials.
Sheikh Nasser is a more modest, self-contained and respectful man, with an appreciation of how to hold and wield substantial power, money and influence with temperance and modesty. His reputation on the world stage is proportionately greater than that of Sheikh Ahmed, who has a notoriety for extravagance with expensive cars and the company of amorous ladies.
Kuwait will remain regrettably corrupt indefinitely for years to come. The world cannot change a problem of such gravity overnight. But the Kuwaiti Emiracy is a very important job in an unstable but now increasingly optimistic part of the world. Given the choice available, I am of the view that the rest of the world ought to support Sheikh Nasser – or his reasonable proxy – as the next Emir of Kuwait. In return, we should insist as incumbent upon him the qualities of moderation, tolerance, increasing openness in Kuwait’s politics and society, vastly improved rule of law (which in Kuwait is very poor), verifiable steps to combat corruption, and an active diplomatic role as an impartial mediator in the region, to match at the very least the much admired and dearly departed Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, may he Rest In Peace.
*Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and the principal witness in the Geneva court case between the two Kuwaiti Sheikhs whose litigation is described in this article. An Honorary Professor at the University of Leicester, he is the author of four books and over 300 articles. www.matthew-parish.com @parish_matthew