On the surface, the brief succession crisis that gripped Kuwait in January 2006 ended in the arbitrary replacement of one member of the ruling Al Sabah family with another. When Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir died after a long illness on January 15, he was succeeded by the crown prince, Sheikh Saad al-Abdallah al-Salim, himself in the throes of a lengthy sickness and suffering also from senile dementia. Politicking ensued inside the ruling family, and on January 29, former Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir took Sheikh Saad’s place and made his first speech as Kuwait’s new ruler. But in between the two successions, the Kuwaiti parliament exercised its independent constitutional powers, demanding that the infirm Sheikh Saad yield. For the first time in an Arab monarchy, an elected body effectively deposed the monarch, and empowered a new one, without anyone firing a shot.

For years, members of the opposition in Kuwait have derided the ruling family’s occasional endorsements of democracy. Opposition activist ‘Isa al-Sarraf put it this way: “For the Al Sabah, democracy is not a strategy. It is a tactic.” In other words, the trappings of democracy are acceptable, as long as they do not interfere with the family’s perceived right to rule Kuwait as it chooses. To be sure, one way to read the story of the Kuwaiti succession is that the ruling family merely failed to head off crisis by resolving internal differences before they went public. But there is another way to tell the story, giving a prominent role to a parliament that, armed with a constitution, a law of succession and a canny speaker, used the tug of war inside the ruling family to force a mutually agreeable resolution. The Kuwaiti succession is, in fact, a tale of two transitions: one between emirs and another from a dynastic monarchy to a strengthened constitutional monarchy.

Family Feud

Kuwaitis are not naïve about maneuvering inside the ruling family, but for the most part, both the rulers and the ruled prefer that these conflicts remain behind closed doors. So it was most unusual when disagreement over the impending emiri transition spilled into the newspapers in late 2005. The fight was between the two main branches of the Al Sabah, descended from two sons of the emir Mubarak, the only Kuwaiti ruler to take power in a coup. Feuding family members were well aware that Sheikh Saad, with his failing health, would not be able to take over when the emir died. Saad’s branch of the family, descendants of Mubarak’s son Salim, wanted to replace Saad with another of their own, but the equally ambitious and larger branch descendant from the older son, Jabir, demurred.

It is frequently said that the reins of emiri power alternate between the descendants of Jabir, who ruled from 1915-1917, and Salim, who ruled from 1917-1921. This is not strictly true. The two immediately succeeding emirs were from alternating branches, but the next emir, Sabah, came, like his predecessor, from the al-Salim branch. He was succeeded by the late emir Jabir al-Ahmed al-Jabir. The descendants of Jabir could hearken back to the precedent of the two successive al-Salims to argue that one of their own should be enthroned.

The al-Salims could see this unsatisfactory state of affairs coming. In the autumn of 2005, Sheikh Salim al-Ali al-Salim, chief of the National Guard, proposed that a ruling committee composed of himself, Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir and Sheikh Mubarak Abdallah al-Ahmad, an old and respected member of the family, be established to bridge the impending gap in the two branches’ positions. Indeed, Sheikh Salim asserted that a leadership crisis existed already, as evidenced by rising government corruption and what he termed unconstitutional governance.

This public expression of concern masked fear of the precise scenario that unfolded in mid-January 2006. The prime minister, Sheikh Sabah, had been an ingenious and activist leader, most notably as an advocate for economic liberalization, foreign investment in the oil sector and political rights for women. Ever since his appointment as prime minister in July 2003, Sheikh Sabah’s power and reach in the state and the economy had gone unchecked by the emir or by peers in his family, although resistance to some measures—such as Project Kuwait, the plan to invite international oil company participation in work in Kuwait’s northern oil fields—came from parliamentary factions. Meanwhile, younger Al Sabah such as the oil minister, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd (also from the al-Jabir branch), maneuvered to position themselves in the line of succession, suspecting that Sheikh Sabah would become emir following the resignation or parliamentary recall of Sheikh Saad. Feeling strong, the al-Jabir branch held firmly against Sheikh Salim’s suggested ruling troika. But this was not a solution. It merely postponed the denouement until after the emir’s death.

Smooth Transition

Enter the speaker of Parliament. Jasim al-Khurafi was as aware as anyone of the huge pile of unfinished business that would have to be gotten through upon the death of an emir. When the expected clash between the al-Salims and al-Jabirs transpired, he intervened promptly to forestall its most deleterious effects. Having met with Sheikh Saad and close family members beforehand, he was in a position to transform what could have been a crisis into a smooth transition.

Khurafi called a meeting with members of Parliament on January 16, the day after the emir’s death. Those attending probed his strategy. Walid al-Tabataba’i, a parliamentary opponent of Project Kuwait, pressed the speaker to permit Sheikh Saad to skip taking the oath of office or to take it in a special, possibly closed session. This was the al-Salim position, reflecting Sheikh Saad’s physical inability to stand and recite the entire oath of office before the National Assembly. Instead, Khurafi made clear his commitment to resolve the succession crisis rather than enable ruling family squabbles that might block the transition indefinitely. Throughout days of inter-family negotiations, Khurafi maintained publicly that he would “do his best to safeguard the constitution and implementation of necessary procedures to ensure the stability of Kuwait.” As part of this strategy, he canceled regular parliamentary sessions to prevent logrolling among family and parliamentary factions, which might permanently import the family’s quarrels into the legislature. Rather, Khurafi chose to shine the spotlight on the Al Sabah and shut the parliament out of all but its constitutionally mandated role.

Sheikh Saad’s supporters then requested that a special session be called for the new emir to take the oath of office. The speaker responded that he would meet with Sheikh Saad, but he also warned the family that he was consulting with constitutional experts. Meanwhile, the cabinet met in a special session to invoke article three of the law of succession, which provides for removal of an emir for reasons of incapacitation. Pressure on the al-Salim branch was thereby intensified.

Both the cabinet, led by the prime minister, and the parliament, led by Jasim al-Khurafi, hoped to avoid having to depose Sheikh Saad. Each slowed its proceedings to a crawl to allow the feeble Saad to bow out gracefully, but, despite their best efforts, the parliamentary resolution to relieve Sheikh Saad of his duties as emir was approved unanimously on January 24, before his letter of resignation arrived at the National Assembly. The resolution also called for the transfer of emiri duties to Sheikh Sabah. That evening, the cabinet named Sheikh Sabah to succeed Sheikh Saad. All these decisions followed the procedures outlined in Kuwait’s constitution.

Sheikh Sabah takes over a country that has enjoyed great prosperity of late. The war in Iraq and rising oil prices have buoyed the economy, attracting huge infusions of cash and creating upsurges in consumer demand from both citizens and well-heeled expatriates. The stock market could be described as verging on irrational exuberance, to paraphrase Alan Greenspan, and, as during the boom of the early 1980s, local wags have again dubbed the construction crane Kuwait’s “national bird.” The buildup to the Iraq war also generated attacks by Kuwaiti “Afghans”—radical Islamist fighters back from the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia—on foreign soldiers and contractors. The government stopped these attacks by closing off a large portion of the north for the exclusive use of the invading forces. Yet opposition to the war remained and was strengthened by the Abu Ghraib revelations. An unknown number of young Kuwaitis decided to “drive to Falluja” to stand with their co-religionists against the Marines, and jihadist violence returned to Kuwait following the November 2004 siege of the Iraqi city. But likely with significant citizen assistance, the police quickly identified and arrested a number of people, mostly Kuwaiti nationals, for participation in gun battles and planting bombs in public places. In late December 2005, shortly before the turmoil over the emiri succession, 37 cases were adjudicated, with 29 of the accused convicted, seven exonerated and the only woman in the group ordered to sign a pledge of good conduct.

An End to Drift

In the general jubilation following Sheikh Sabah’s accession, the political uncertainty that was heightened as the late Sheikh Jabir grew increasingly frail appears to have eased. The marked relief in Kuwait reflects the toll that the emir’s gradual withdrawal from public life had exacted. Sheikh Jabir’s growing distance from day-to-day politics can be traced back to 1985 and the assassination attempt that came close enough to kill the driver of his car. In the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion, he fled to the Saudi Arabian city of Ta’if, where he faded rapidly into the background of exile politics even though he had dealt skillfully just a few months earlier with a popular movement opposing his 1986 dismissal of Parliament and suspension of the constitution. Against widespread expectations, he had orchestrated the substitution of an elected consultative body for the fractious parliament that had given him so much trouble.

After liberation, more active members of the family, including then-Crown Prince Saad, who had taken a leading role during the Iraqi occupation, used martial law, which the emir had declared in February 1991 before his return to Kuwait, to expel Kuwait’s Palestinian residents and perhaps also settle a few old scores. Following the end of martial law, the emir called for new parliamentary elections. Held in October 1992, they restored constitutional governance after a lapse of seven years, although the status of civil liberties provisions suspended during the long interregnum remained in doubt. The new parliament contested the legality of emiri decrees published during that time, especially those restricting the press and establishing a separate court to try cabinet ministers accused of crimes. The emir responded ambiguously, without the deftness of his coup de force against the pro-democracy movement in 1990. Instead, Sheikh Saad became the family’s enforcer. Kinder and gentler than such a designation might indicate in other countries, he threatened parliamentary dissolution when the opposition became too vocal and stage-managed events such as a dinner for 1,200 persons that ostentatiously included as invited guests members of the extra-constitutional consultative assembly superceded by the constitutional parliament restored by the 1992 election.

The late emir’s passivity helps to explain the drift in Kuwait’s oil policy following liberation. Expansion of its once dynamic multinational oil company was reined in while domestic affiliates of the company became sites of political and ideological conflict. Some of this undoubtedly arose from uncertainty over Kuwait’s financial position, with its oil wells burning and billions in costs for the invasion rollback and post-liberation reconstruction beginning to add up. Saddam Hussein was still in power across the Iraqi border. During the occupation, trusted managers, executives and even customers had seized the opportunity to steal Kuwaiti assets and siphon wealth from company subsidiaries.

After liberation, strategic decisions about the oil sector were postponed. Meanwhile, a rash of accidents plagued Kuwait’s oil facilities and, under one oil minister, became the focus of a struggle between him and company employees whom the minister had accused of being Islamists. Project Kuwait, conceived as a tripwire with the power to deter future Iraqi aggression, gradually came to be seen by Kuwaiti oil insiders as a way to dispel the miasma of indecision at the top by introducing foreign players with enough clout to get oil development back on track.

Sheikh Jabir’s malaise was especially evident following his May 1999 attempt to extend political rights to Kuwaiti women. The emir did virtually nothing to ensure the success of this initiative in Parliament. After the 2003 election, Sheikh Saad was replaced by Sheikh Sabah as prime minister. The women’s rights issue was reinvigorated, with the government displaying unaccustomed energy and strategic vision. After several false starts, Parliament finally passed a mean-spirited measure granting women the right to vote and run, but only in municipal elections. Two weeks later, the cabinet came back with an entirely new proposal that imposed no limits on the type of elections women could participate in. Its best-conceived provision invoked an “order for urgency” allowing the bill to become law in a single session. This provision cut off, at one stroke, any opportunity for opponents to induce weakly committed supporters to waver.

Fateful Decisions

The two biggest decisions immediately facing Sheikh Sabah as emir were his choices for prime minister and crown prince. By tradition, the emir chooses the prime minister, who fills the cabinet positions in consultation with the ruler. Ministerial posts, especially foreign affairs, interior and defense, are the family’s integuments around the most important instruments of state and underpin the supremacy of the emir. The grand prize, however, is the position of crown prince, the heir apparent, whose appointment must be approved by Parliament.

Until 2003, the crown prince also acted as prime minister, but Sheikh Saad’s debilitation forced the Al Sabah onto the horns of a dilemma. They could orchestrate Sheikh Saad’s “resignation” from his position as crown prince and install a replacement, or they could leave him in place as heir apparent and separate the positions of crown prince and prime minister, putting off the thorny issue of succession, but placing the actual responsibilities of government in more capable hands. The embarrassment arising as the result of the family having chosen the latter course suggests that its decision with regard to whether it should rejoin these positions should be taken with its long-term interests in mind.

The separation of the positions of crown prince and prime minister had long been a key demand of opposition groups in Parliament, and there was little enthusiasm for recombining them, either among legislators or among other opinion leaders. Having separate positions also made it possible to continue to divide responsibility between the two contending branches of the Al Sabah by naming an al-Jabir to one and an al-Salim to the other. The emir Sabah’s eventual decision—to keep the positions separate and to name two al-Jabirs to fill them—thus marked a historic turning point in the fortunes of the other branches of Mubarak’s family, as the al-Jabir asserted their authority over the succession and the government, all at the same time. The new crown prince is Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad, the emir’s half-brother, and the new prime minister is Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad, the emir’s nephew.

How things turn out for the dynastic corporation also depends on how younger family members competing for places near the front of the line of succession see these changes. As a free-standing position, the prime ministership could be remade into the top echelon of what Walter Bagehot called the “efficient parts” of the state—“those by which it, in fact, works and rules”—while the emir increasingly concerned himself with the “dignified parts…which excite and preserve the reverence of the population.” Serving as prime minister could offer an able and ambitious family member a chance to show off the skills he would have acquired in other ministries and perhaps to move into the line of succession. It would be an insurance policy, too. A poor prime minister could be retired through parliamentary action, and the reputation of the family as a producer of competent rulers maintained. Competition between the two branches also could revive if an al-Salim were to demonstrate excellence as a minister and become a credible contender for the prime minister’s job.

Although dividing these two positions holds promise for rationalization and flexibility, how this will play out is an open question given the new prime minister’s cabinet choices. The most remarkable appointment was Sheikh Jabir al-Mubarak al-Hamad, a descendant of Mubarak through a third son, who takes three important roles: first deputy prime minister and holder of two ministerial portfolios, interior and defense. The late emir Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad, his predecessor Sheikh Sabah al-Salim and his successor Sheikh Saad al-Salim all had held one or more domestic security posts before their appointments to the crown princeship. Only one al-Salim holds a cabinet post. This is Sheikh Muhammad al-Sabah al-Salim, who retains the foreign affairs portfolio and also was named deputy prime minister. Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd al-Ahmad, the ambitious minister of energy, also kept his post. Kuwaiti observers mention age as a primary reason why no al-Salim was awarded a top spot; the new crown prince is 68 and the new prime minister 65, while Sheikh Muhammad is only 50. Sheikh Ahmad is 43.

“Regime Change” The Natural Way

According to local newspapers, Kuwaitis are pleased at the prospect of an emir who allows them to honor both of his predecessors, while they rejoice in the prospect of measured steps toward political and economic liberalization. Few Kuwaitis want to dispense with the ruling family, especially not violently. After liberation, despite the long-delayed return of Sheikh Jabir to Kuwait, few criticized him and virtually all welcomed him home heartily. Indeed, the ceremony accompanying Sheikh Sabah’s taking of the oath as emir featured every member of parliament speaking for three minutes (not enough time, they grumbled) to voice their appreciation for all three emirs: the late Sheikh Jabir, the incapacitated Sheikh Saad, whose dignity was salvaged—just—by his family, and the new emir Sabah.

Columbia University political scientist Lisa Anderson wrote in 2000 that scholarly expectations of Middle Eastern monarchies being tossed into the dustbin of history were only partly fulfilled. Instead, the ruling families and their regimes have proven to be surprisingly resilient. The Kuwaiti tale of two transitions, however, reveals the growing dependence of at least one regional dynastic monarchy on popular forces, social and economic elites, and jointly shaped understandings of the national interest. The Kuwaiti parliamentary intervention to avert a succession imbroglio was a small step toward democratization in the Middle East—and one for which external intervention cannot claim credit. Given the turmoil in the region, one can only hope that Kuwait’s recent actions will be institutionalized and that peaceful evolution of its constitutional monarchy toward constitutional democracy will continue.

How to cite this article:

Mary Ann Tétreault "Three Emirs and a Tale of Two Transitions," Middle East Report Online, February 10, 2006.

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