You may also like
While his predecessor Sheikh Sabah mainly stood out internationally, Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, known as "the Emir of Pardons", focused on resolving the political crisis in Kuwait. Despite his conciliatory moves, the need for reforms in several areas remains high. Nawaf's longtime deputy and successor Emir Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah is set to steer the country in a new direction.
“Soft spoken, devout, modest, low-profile.” These are the words used by Bader al-Saif, assistant professor of history at Kuwait University, to describe the late emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah. It is how many Kuwaitis would describe the sixteenth ruler of Kuwait.
As to his achievements, it is harder to find testimonials. This might have to do with the short period of time Sheikh Nawaf was ruling. It also might have to do with his frail health that led him to leave most of his power to the crown prince, his half-brother Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, who succeeded him as emir of Kuwait in December 2023. And most certainly it has to do with the fact that he inherited a politically paralyzed country where bringing change seems harder than ever.
Sheikh Nawaf was born in 1937, as the sixth son of the tenth ruler of Kuwait, Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah and a mother who is only known by the name Yamama. He finished high school but did not continue his higher education.
In 1962 his political career started as governor of the province of Hawalli, then he became Minister of Interior in 1978 and then Minister of Defence in 1988.
In the latter position he was heavily criticised for his weak performance during the Iraqi invasion. This episode is shrouded in secrecy – as are all sensitive issues around royal family members – but he had allegedly ordered Kuwaiti tanks to pull back from the border as Saddam’s forces advanced, and the Kuwaiti military to hold its fire. An investigation was held, but its findings were never made public.
After the war, Sheikh Nawaf became minister of Social Affairs and Labour, seen as a demotion. In 1994 he became deputy head of the National Guard and in 2003 he returned to the government and took over the portfolio of the Ministry of Interior once again. In 2006 he was appointed crown prince under Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah until he assumed power as emir in 2020 of a country that was suffering from a fragile political environment.
Political environment in Kuwait under Emir Nawaf
Sheikh Nawaf took over from his predecessor Sheikh Sabah in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and – more importantly – in the midst of a perennial political, economic and societal crisis. The crisis is characterised by massive but ineffective spending on civil service and subsidies, and MPs lobbying for the state to buy Kuwaiti citizens’ debt.
Meanwhile, public services such as infrastructure, health care and education are in decay. Corruption is rampant, as indicated by a number of high-profile cases involving senior officials. On that aspect, Kuwait is doing worse than its fellow Gulf states, ranking lowest on Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perception Index.
Furthermore, Kuwait has a hard time transitioning away from oil, lagging behind the other Gulf states that are already implementing their visions for the future. While other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have implemented structural reforms to boost non-oil sectors such as local industries and tourism and to attract foreign investments, Kuwait has shown “limited progress” in such reforms, according to the World Bank. It largely attributes this to the impasse between the government and parliament. In addition, within the GCC, Kuwait ranks lowest on the Global Economic Diversification Index 2023.
It begs the question why Kuwait is in such a state and does not succeed as much as the other Gulf states do, at least economically. Widely blamed for this state of affairs is often the system of democracy being practised in Kuwait. Kuwait’s elected and rather powerful parliament has since the ‘90’s slowly but surely turned into a vehicle for certain individuals to push their own interests, among whom members of the royal family.
Rather than being intrigues that happen behind the closed doors of palaces, in Kuwait rifts between royal family members are played out as a kind of proxy war between parliament and government. Ruling family members are believed to use the parliament to push their agenda, the agenda being: becoming emir.
This agenda became even more urgent during the reign of Emir Nawaf and his crown prince at the time, both being octogenarians and the last of a generation to become emir.
As the leadership of Kuwait would be handed down to the next generation, Nawaf essentially had to try to keep things stable while around him family members were keeping a closer eye on the prize – the position of emir – more than ever.
For years, a relatively younger generation has been rattling the gates of power, with at least two known rivals for the position. On the way, they allegedly try to settle disputes through the government and the parliament.
On the one hand, there are royal family members who support the government or are part of it, and by extension back the government-sided MPs. On the other hand, there are those who fight the government, and by extension support the opposition lawmakers. Not because they necessarily support the ideas of these MPs, but to throw a spanner in the works of the functioning of the state.
Each side accuses the other of mismanagement and corruption. “The main goal of this,” says a Kuwaiti student of political science who wants to remain anonymous, “is to eliminate and break every royal family member so the road is paved for a certain family member to be next ruler.”
Thus, what is often perceived as a fight between government and a largely opposing parliament, is not only a matter of conflicting ideologies, it is as much a hidden struggle for power within the royal family.
Besides being a battleground for royal conflicts, parliament members often focus on their own (and their voters’) interests only, leading to unrealistic demands or petty politics. When things are getting out of hand, the government usually resigns and parliament is dissolved, after which this cycle repeats itself again.
Emir Nawaf’s reign was marked by three parliaments and eight governments. One of the lowlights in Kuwait’s parliamentary history was the annulment of the 2022 elections, reinstallation of the 2021 parliament and new elections in 2023. The latter led to a victory of the ‘opposition’, including Islamists, and of veteran MP Ahmad al-Saadoun.
So far, this message seems to have fallen mostly on deaf ears. There is still no productive coalition building, rather an increase of unrealistic demands such as increasing pensions or the buying-off of citizens’ bank loans. It all leads to more discussion and anger between government and parliament and thus to more inactivity.
Meanwhile, experts have warned against giving in to these irrational demands, as they deem them unsustainable to Kuwait’s future and harmful for the country’s finances. Such populism also inhibits much needed reforms as even oil-rich countries like Kuwait have realised that they need to move away from oil.
The Emir of Pardons
In an attempt to resolve the political deadlock, Emir Nawaf made a range of reconciliatory moves. He fired corrupt elements from the government, higher echelons of ministries and other government agencies. Former ministers and high-ranking military officers were indicted and after pressure from the parliament, he replaced Prime Minister Sabah al-Khalid Al Sabah with his son Ahmad al-Nawaf.
In a bid to appease the opposition forces in parliament and to defuse another major government standoff, in 2021 Emir Nawaf issued an amnesty decree, pardoning and reducing the sentences of nearly three dozen Kuwaiti dissidents, including royal family members who were convicted for insulting the previous emir.
“He has a nickname here, they call him ‘the emir of pardons,’” said Bader al-Saif, assistant professor of history at Kuwait University on X. “No one in modern Kuwaiti history has gone this far to reach out to the other side, to open up.”
Reaching out is one way of perceiving the pardons, another is to question its sensibility. The political science student calls it “exemption from punishment for those who supported terror organisations […] who were planning an armed coup.” As with so many things, perception and appreciation in Kuwait depend very much on which side one is on.
Internationally, Sheikh Nawaf merely seems to have continued the legacy of his predecessor Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, a respected diplomat who sought stability in the region and maintained good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to foreign relations, it was mainly Crown Prince Meshal who has mapped out the country’s foreign interests. He travelled frequently to Saudi Arabia and visited China in September 2023. Ties with both are expected to continue and to be strengthened.
As to Kuwait’s stance on the War in Gaza, which erupted just weeks before Sheikh Nawaf was admitted to hospital, Kuwait’s Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that Kuwait “categorically” rejected Israel’s calls for the forced displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, as well as the continued escalation and random destruction. Kuwait, as opposed to some of its GCC-neighbours like the UAE and Bahrain- has always been fiercely against normalising relations with Israel, now more than ever.
Perhaps more significant than the relatively uneventful and short rule of Sheikh Nawaf is the question: what’s next? In his first speech as emir, Sheikh Meshal was very critical of lawmakers and the government, calling upon them to enact radical changes. Whether these are more than just words, remains to be seen.
For fundamental change, constitutional, institutional and political reforms are needed. But reforms are only effective if the rift within the royal family that holds the political system hostage ends. It remains to be seen whether the current emir is capable of that.
He is now faced with the task of appointing a crown prince, a contentious matter. According to the constitution, the emir nominates the crown prince within one year of assuming power. The parliament then accepts or rejects the nominee in a secret session. Rejection has so far never happened.
In 2020, Sheikh Nawaf appointed the crown prince in a matter of days and besides a few surprised reactions, there was no opposition against the choice of Sheikh Meshal. Being of the same generation as both Sabah and Nawaf, and conforming to tradition, Meshal was a logical and legitimate successor.
However, as Meshal is set to be the last within his generation to rule the country, the stakes are higher. Inevitably, a (relatively) young crown prince will be appointed and a choice must be made between some royal rivals who have been fighting behind the scenes for years.
The internal rivalry comes on top of another issue: that of the Jaber/Salem rule. Kuwait’s constitution stipulates only that the ruler should be a descendant of the nation’s founder, Mubarak Al Sabah. But by tradition, the throne had alternated between the Salem and Jaber branches of the family. With Sheikh Sabah, Sheikh Nawaf and Sheikh Meshal being all from the Jaber clan, for now this rule seems to have been broken for good.
It is unclear whether this marginalisation of the Salem branch causes further tension within the royal family, and whether it will cause any delay in appointing the next crown prince.
With the appointment of the Harvard-educated Sheikh Dr Muhammad Sabah al-Salem as prime minister on January 4, 2024, it seems that the most likely Salem-candidate, at least for now, is not considered for the position of crown prince.
In any case, the first government under Emir Meshal, mainly composed of technocrats and newcomers, shoulders the responsibility to steer Kuwait in a new direction, implement much-needed reforms and meet Kuwaitis’ expectations.