DUBAI – Kuwait’s Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah was sworn in before parliament Wednesday as the ruling emir of the tiny oil-rich country, propelled to power by the death of his half-brother after a long career in the security services.
At age 83, Sheikh Nawaf is not expected to deviate from the diplomatic path charted by his predecessor, the late Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. But his accession touched off speculation about who will become the next crown prince in the country known for its lively elected parliament and relative independence in the neighborhood of Gulf Arab monarchies.
The late Sheikh Sabah, 91, made his final journey to Kuwait later on Wednesday, his remains flying back to Kuwait City from Rochester, Minnesota, home of the flagship campus of the Mayo Clinic where he had been receiving medical treatment after surgery.
State television broadcast live as the ruler's body, draped in a Kuwaiti flag, arrived at the airport. A host of Kuwaiti officials and close relatives carried the body aloft into an ambulance.
Although his funeral would ordinarily draw tens of thousands of Kuwaiti mourners and scores of foreign dignitaries, because of the coronavirus pandemic the burial was restricted to relatives, reported Kuwait’s state-run news agency, KUNA. Yet Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, came to pay his respects, alongside an Emirati official, underscoring the late ruler's deft navigation of the region's stark political divides.
Inside the spacious mosque, the late emir's adviser, with tears in his eyes and a trembling voice, led family members in prayer. As mourners knelt in unison, Sheikh Nawaf performed the prayers from a chair, permissible in Islam for those unable to stand up or suffering from health issues. The coffin was then moved to a nearby cemetery, where close relatives shared a moment of silence, heads bowed and eyes closed, and soldiers dug a fresh grave. Sheikh Nawaf and other mourners sprinkled dirt atop the body as it was finally lowered into the soil. The state TV narrator sounded as though he was choking back tears.
The breadth and depth of emotion over the loss of Sheikh Sabah, known for his diplomacy and peacemaking, was reflected in condolence messages that streamed in from countries on opposite ends of regional feuds, from Saudi Arabia to Iran and Qatar. In Kuwait, shops shuttered for three days and roads emptied for the funeral procession. High-rises across Kuwait City illuminated at night with his image.
Sheikh Nawaf took office as the new ruler of Kuwait in the parliament building before rows of applauding lawmakers, clad in traditional white robes and surgical masks because of the pandemic. In a low voice, he offered tribute to his late half-brother and promised to "preserve the security of Kuwait."
“Kuwait throughout its history has seen serious and tough challenges, which we have succeeded in overcoming through cooperating together,” said Sheikh Nawaf, reading from prepared remarks. “Today, our dear country also faces risky circumstances and difficulties that there is no way to bypass except through unity.”
The challenges are manifold. Gridlock in parliament has blocked the passage of a public debt law needed to raise $65 billion and mitigate the country’s looming liquidity crisis. A major credit agency last week downgraded Kuwait for the first time in its history, citing the government’s swelling budget deficit. Plunging oil prices amid the pandemic have robbed the wealthy country of cash. The economy still feeds on petrodollars and has been slow to diversify. Other headwinds include “unchecked corruption, mediocre government services and unresolved issues, such as the status of stateless persons,” wrote Bader al-Saif, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
After the ceremony, Sheikh Nawaf, in his flowing robe, strode into a black Mercedes as groups of soldiers delivered a crisp salute. During the day, he conducted meetings with top politicians, including the head of parliament, at his palace. Earlier this week, in an unexpected move, he received two opposition figures to discuss political reforms ahead of parliamentary elections in November, state-linked media reported, although the most prominent opposition leaders remain in exile.
Sheikh Nawaf's ascent to the throne bookended a political career that spanned from interior minister to defense minister, dating back to 1991 when U.S. troops and their allies invaded Kuwait.
Sheikh Nawaf briefly served as social affairs and labor minister after the war, then as the deputy chief of Kuwait’s National Guard and again as interior minister. He became the crown prince under Sheikh Sabah in February 2006, but was not known for making any major political decisions during his tenure. The sheikh was educated in Kuwaiti schools and is married with four sons and one daughter.
While his taking the reins was prescribed by Kuwait's constitution, the succession plan remains uncertain. The late Sheikh Sabah came to power by jumping a traditional order of alternating rule between two branches of the royal family, when parliament voted to oust his predecessor, the ailing Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, just nine days into his rule.
Now Sheikh Nawaf has inherited the fraught task of appointing a new crown prince. Kuwait stands out in the region for the power of its parliament, which retains the right to reject the emir's choice.
Kuwait’s chances for economic reform and reputation for neutrality in a turbulent region hang in the balance, said private intelligence agency Stratfor. Even under pressure from regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Sabah long charted a path of diplomacy through the bitter dispute that pits Qatar against an alliance of Gulf states, as well as through other ruinous Mideast conflicts over the years, such as in Lebanon and Yemen.