Thursday, 19th September 2019

Al-Salem branch shouldn’t be written out of Kuwaiti succession

With further concerns about the health of Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, following his admission to hospital in the United States during September, attention is inevitably turning to the often-intricate politics of succession in Kuwait (GSN 1,087/1).

In the country’s modern history, succession within the ruling Al-Sabah family has been marked by the custom that the emir is picked in turn from the two main branches of the family: the Al-Jaber and Al-Salem, both descended from Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, known as Mubarak the Great (ruled 1896-1915). However, that convention was cast aside in January 2006, when Crown Prince Sheikh Saad Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah was passed over as medically unfit to take the highest office after Emir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah passed away. Instead the current Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who was prime minister at the time, took his place.

Since that pivotal moment, the Al-Jaber have held onto the reins of power, and this grip was further enhanced when Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the emir’s half-brother, was named crown prince in February 2006. The tradition of alternating between the ruling family’s Al-Jaber and Al-Salem branches appeared to have been at least suspended, if not completely broken.

The most senior member of the Al-Salem, Kuwait National Guard commander Sheikh Salem Ali Al-Salem Al-Sabah, resisted this shift, but he and the rest of his branch were unable to prevent it. As a result, there has been speculation that members of the Al-Salem branch have effectively been eliminated from the succession process.

That was given further credence in September 2011, when Mohammed Al-Salem Al-Sabah, widely touted as a front-runner in any future Al-Salem claim to lead the family, resigned as deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister during a corruption scandal involving government payments to MPs (GSN 913/1). Publicly, he cited his unwillingness to serve in “a government that does not carry out true reforms regarding the multi-million bank deposits”. However, sources in Kuwait say different things about why he left. Some contend that Mohammed Al-Salem was not actually interested in higher office and preferred academic life, as demonstrated by his position since 2012 as a visiting fellow at Oxford University; he was also previously an associate professor of economics at Kuwait University. Others say he insulted other senior figures by resigning in such a public fashion, which ended any chance of reappointment. Either way, it spelled the end of the one candidate widely touted as the “best chance” for the Al-Salem branch.

However, soundings taken by GSN suggest the Al-Salem have certainly not conceded their right to high office. GSN has spoken to a number of people within the branch who have made clear they still expect their branch to provide future leaders of the ruling family.

One critical element of this is in regard to the women in the family. Often wrongfully ignored in analysis of succession politics, ruling family women often play a critical role in developing relations between branches of the family and beyond. A key example is Sheikha Hussa Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, wife of deputy foreign minister (and son of the current emir) Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, who is seen as highly likely to become the next (or next but one) emir.

Sheikha Hussa is the daughter of Emir Sabah Al-Salem (ruled 1965-77) and is a powerhouse in the business, social and political arenas. She co-founded the cultural organisation Dar Al-Athar aA-Islamiyyah (DAI) in 1983 with her husband. She is also deeply involved in the Kuwait 2035 economic development programme, helping to fund Al-Shaheed Park, the new Opera House and dozens of other projects.

It is also worth noting that Kuwait has been through similar phases in the past. In 1962, the opposite chain of events occurred. That year, Sheikh Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah was named crown prince, lined up to succeed his half-brother Emir Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah (who had taken office in 1950). Both were members of the Al-Salem branch, but the family council failed to reach a consensus on the succession following a prolonged bout of infighting between two leading candidates. Sabah Al-Salem won that battle and went on to become emir in 1965. However, his rival ended up succeeding him as Emir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah – and ruling for even longer, from 1977 to 2006.

All the current ruling family council members are well aware of these earlier events. The Al-Salem branch has never left politics and, while it may now be the less powerful of the two family lines, it still retains a central position in Kuwaiti politics.

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