Emir Mishal faces familiar set of challenges

2 January 2024


The succession of a new emir in Kuwait hands formal power to another long-serving figure from the Al-Sabah dynasty. Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah – only three years younger than his late elder brother, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah – is a well-known figure who has held senior defence and security roles in the past, and since 2020, the crown prince position.

Effectively, Sheikh Mishal has been in charge of the government since at least November 2021, when Nawaf’s deteriorating health meant day-to-day power was transferred to his younger brother. This may be a positive, say analysts.

“Since then, there’s been an improvement in parliamentary relations with government, so that could be a positive sign for the future,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at the Baker Institute.

Continuity candidate

Perhaps mindful of the view of many in Kuwait that the new emir hardly represents a break with the past, Sheikh Mishal’s first speech on taking power on 20 December was bold in tone and substance.

He told MPs that both they and the government had harmed the interests of the people. He even voiced disagreement with the late Emir Nawaf over some of the pardons he had issued to individuals accused of spying for Iran and Hezbollah.

That robust style was already evident in June 2022, when the then crown prince attacked the government for a “lack of clarity” in its vision, which he implied had done little to dampen broader opposition to the government.

Sheikh Mishal also appeared to hint that unless there was an improvement and the various logjams obstructing progress removed, the National Assembly could be suspended – regarded in Kuwaiti political circles as the “nuclear option”.

That seems an unlikely prospect. In fact, Sheikh Mishal has also taken conciliatory positions. According to Ulrichsen, many of the politicians who were convicted in the 2010s under former Emir Sheikh Sabah were granted amnesties out of a desire for reconciliation and to move on from the post-Arab Spring decade.

“Because of Nawaf’s ill health, Mishal was the driving force behind that. He’s been signalling to the political class that he’s willing to give them a chance,” says Ulrichsen.

Shifting power dynamics

If the new emir is to give substance to the more ambitious elements of his first speech on taking the oath, then he will need to make some senior appointments that can effect that change. 

“There’s certainly been an attempt to replace or reshuffle a lot of the old guard, and that’s associated with Mishal even if Nawaf was the emir in name,” says Ulrichsen.

Powerful incumbents such as Defence Minister Sheikh Ahmad Fahad al-Sabah are expected to remain in position. He has been viewed as a potential emir himself, enjoying the advantage of relative youth – he is in his late 60s.

The latter’s main rival within senior circles has been the former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al-Sabah, who is 81 and less of a direct challenge to Sheikh Mishal. The intense competition between Nasser and Ahmad made it easier for Mishal to emerge as the consensus emir candidate.

Another brewing rivalry could see the sons of the late Emir Nawaf and Sheikh Mishal making plays for a shift in generational power.

Both men were influential in the reorganisation of senior decision-making processes, which saw a number of individuals associated with the late Sheikh Sabah removed from office. Emir Mishal’s son, Ahmad Mishal al-Ahmad, was the head of the Government Performance Monitoring Agency. Ahmad Nawaf al-Ahmad, who was prime minister between June 2022 and December 2023, remains a powerful figure in Kuwait City.  

Given Emir Mishal’s advanced age, these two men are viewed as potential succession candidates – representing a younger generation that some have viewed as presaging a shift seen over recent years in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.

Such hopes may be dashed since the reality is that there is not a Kuwaiti version of Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman waiting in the wings. And given the parliament’s important role in the approval process – uniquely in the Gulf – Kuwait’s ruler does not have the same freedom of action that his counterpart in Saudi Arabia has. 

Nevertheless, “the Al-Sabahs are running out of brothers. They’ve basically gone from one brother to another for the last 46 years, and their ability to continue that is in question”, says Ulrichsen.

Regional implications

The change of guard in Kuwait also has implications for the rest of the Gulf, given the state’s historic role as a regional peace broker and bridge builder within the often-fractious Gulf Cooperation Council.

The aftermath of the Al-Ula agreement in 2021, which ushered in the reconciliation between Qatar and its GCC antagonists, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, means there is now less requirement for Kuwaiti intermediation.

In any case, Kuwait’s effectiveness in that role largely rested on the personal qualities of the late Emir Sabah, who had decades of diplomatic experience to draw on. His successors do not enjoy such elevated status.

The coming months will give a clearer idea of how Emir Mishal intends to stamp his authority. Those anticipating root and branch change may be disappointed. A younger generation is still some way from taking the reins of power in Kuwait, and the country could still prove stubbornly resistant to the kinds of reforms that have swept through other GCC states.

James Gavin
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