Doubts about Crown Prince Nawaf’s health spur talk of change in Kuwaiti succession

With the elder generation ailing, Emir Sheikh Sabah’s son Sheikh Nasser Sabah has risen up the pecking order to take over on his father’s death, at a time when GSN’s soundings suggest there are surprisingly few other credible candidates for the top jobs in Kuwait

The return of Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah to Kuwait after an extended period of medical checks in New York appears to have settled some nerves about the immediate succession (GSN 1,090/7). Notwithstanding his health issues, the 90-year-old emir appears in relatively good shape for his age. However, succession is set to remain a live issue, particularly given fresh doubts about Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah’s future as heir apparent. GSN’s soundings suggest the succession to Sheikh Sabah may skip a generation, but keep power within the emir’s nuclear family. GSN understands that the emir’s half-brother Sheikh Nawaf is highly unlikely to succeed given his own health issues. Sources suggest that the emir’s 71-year-old son, defence minister and deputy prime minister Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, is now most likely to step up to fill any potential vacancy, but formal decisions have yet to be made.

This generational shift, while not elevating a young leader, should allow the Al-Sabah to avoid some of the turmoil that surrounded the succession of Sheikh Saad Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, who was forced to abdicate in January 2006 due to ill heath after just nine days as emir (GSN 774/1). What does not appear to be in question is that the Al-Jaber branch will seek to assert its dominance of Kuwaiti politics by ensuring one of its own is given the role – which means the rival Al-Salem branch will remain excluded from the highest office for a good while longer, which may not win universal support (GSN 1,088/14).

Two previous contenders to become heir apparent, former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah and former deputy PM Sheikh Ahmed Fahd Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, have fallen out of favour due to a string of scandals. Their fall from grace has narrowed the field considerably. The range of plausible candidates is now relatively limited given the shortcomings and limited interest among some of those who might be considered to have potential. Sheikh Nawaf’s four sons – Sheikhs Ahmed, Faisal, Abdullah and Salim – all have high-powered jobs, at variously the Ministry of Information, Kuwait Police and the Kuwait National Army. However, according to several knowledgeable sources, none of them has the rank or inclination to make a play for the highest job in the land.

Another of the current emir’s half-brothers, deputy head of the National Guard since 2004 Sheikh Mishaal Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, has often been cast as a potential successor. But while sources close to the ruling family note that Mishaal is a very trusted advisor of the emir, he is not considered to be in contention for the top job; nor is he interested in doing so. Mishaal also has four sons – Sheikhs Ahmed, Talal, Fahad and Jaber – but none of them are closely involved in the day-to-day running of the highest offices.

Other potential contenders are few and far between according to high-level sources, assuming the successor will come from one of the nine sons of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Ali Al-Sabah (emir from 1921 to 1950) or their children. Many within this group play no part in politics, including the six offspring of Sheikh Ahmed’s eldest son Sheikh Abdullah. Similarly, the two sons of Sheikh Mansur – Sheikhs Ahmed and Faisal – and the four sons of Shaikh Khalid have all remained outside the diwan’s high politics. The emir prior to Sheikh Saad’s brief rule, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (ruled 1977-2006), had 22 sons but none of them are considered likely contenders.

Sheikh Fahd Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah – killed in Dasman Palace in August 1990 by Iraqi forces – had five sons: scandal-prone Sheikh Ahmad as well as Sheikhs Talal, Athbi, Khalid and Dari. However, all have been more involved in sports than conventional politics. They “likely will go down with the ship”, according to one Kuwaiti source.

Sheikh Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah has no living heirs other than Sheikh Nasser, although this line of the family may yet provide more powerful figures in the future. Sheikh Nasser’s second son, Sheikh Ahmed, is a critical player in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as deputy minister; sources in Kuwait tip him as someone to watch for the future.

It is in this context that GSN’s soundings suggest the most likely choice to be the next crown prince – and potentially to vault straight up to the top job – is Sheikh Nasser Sabah. This is despite Nasser Sabah’s own health problems; he spent time in Uzbekistan and then the UK last year to recuperate from cancer treatment (GSN 1,067/7). However, the deputy prime minister still has strong credentials rivals cannot apparently match.

The emir’s other living son, Sheikh Hamad Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, is a businessman and chairman of local project management giant Kuwait Projects Company (Kipco), which has assets of some $33bn; he is said to be uninterested in politics.

Some other younger contenders may yet gain ground in the succession race, but while some Kuwaitis are keen to laud the idea of a younger ruler, this runs against tradition. The recent travails of one younger pretender, Sheikh Ahmed Fahd, offers a cautionary tale for the ruling family. And the experience of younger rulers taking over in Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, in Qatar gives the Al-Sabah plenty of reason to avoid rushing to promote the next generation too quickly.

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