Even with the recent death of its Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, Kuwait continues to lag its Gulf Arab states in going through a generational change in leaders. This does not mean that change is not on the horizon. The new ruler, Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the 83-year old brother of the former Emir, is unlikely to rule for very long, and the various rivals for the as-of-yet named post of Crown Prince are each over 70 years old. It is unclear exactly what path the new leadership will take internationally or in Kuwait’s fractious and relatively inclusive political system. The former Emir, Sabah al-Ahmad had – in over four decades in leadership positions ranging from Foreign Minister to Prime Minister to Emir – forged and maintained a Kuwaiti foreign and security policy of extreme sophistication. Similarly, he navigated Kuwait’s various rival domestic groups retaining his popularity and political strength. While the new Emir’s first set of international meetings – with high-level U.S. and Iranian representatives – demonstrated near-term continuity with Kuwait’s policies of balancing, longer-term policies are currently unclear particularly given the divisions among family and other factions regarding the position of Crown Prince.
While the appointment of the new Emir has gone smoothly, that wasn’t always the case. Indeed, former Emir Sabah al-Ahmad came to power in 2006 after parliament deemed that then-Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah was unfit to rule due to concerns about his health. This resulted in a change of leadership from one key faction of Kuwait’s ruling family to the other which had alternated leadership between the two for over a century. The appointment of the new Crown Prince, which must be approved by parliament, has the potential to be a point of contention between the two family factions as well as other rivals in the younger generations of Kuwait’s political and business leaders. The Salim line of the family, which lost out on the Emir position in 2006 now worries that, absent a Crown Prince appointed from its line, it will be put in a position of permanent political subservience. Even if the current Emir decides to appoint a Crown Prince from within his Jabir line, there are multiple contenders who have been waging political battles against on one another for many years. Those battles have been vicious and worthy of a political novel. On top of this is the increasingly restive Kuwaiti population who has sought to reduce the corruption and are watching the Crown Prince position for an indication of whether serious reforms might be in the offing.
On the external relations front, Kuwait – when its former Emir was Foreign Minister – was the driving force behind Gulf Arab unity including the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1991. Kuwait has in more recent times attempted to smooth relations among its neighbors particularly the Saudi/Emirati dispute with Qatar. Unlike Oman and Bahrain, Kuwait’s own oil wealth has left it with a more independent position within the GCC, allowing it to work diplomatic channels in attempts to reduce friction among the Gulf Arab states. Whether a new Kuwaiti government, even when the issue of the Crown Prince is settled, will have both the interest and acumen to continue such a role is an open question. This may lead to more fractious relations in a Gulf full of younger and more ambitious leaders. It may even reopen issues such as the Saudi-Kuwait border. This has far-reaching implications, including for coordinating oil production. Even without a near-term shift to the next generation of leadership, there is plenty to watch in Kuwaiti internal and external politics over the next few years.