Kuwait’s new emir was sworn in before parliament on Wednesday amid preparations to bury veteran ruler Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah who kept the Persian Gulf oil producer on an even keel through some of the Middle East’s most turbulent decades.
Sheikh Nawaf al Ahmad al Sabah, 83, is likely to continue with Kuwait’s oil policy of co-operating with Opec to ensure market stability.
Kuwait declared 40 days of mourning following the death of Sheikh Sabah, who died this week at the age of 91 in the US, where he had been receiving treatment since July.
Sheikh Sabah earned a reputation as an exceptional ruler who could cross the region’s political and sectarian divides. His funeral has been restricted to ruling family members due to Covid-19 concerns.
The late emir ruled for 14 years, using his accomplished diplomatic skills to mediate between regional foes Saudi Arabia and Qatar, keep friendly ties with Iran and help normalise relations with Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
He also kept out of long-running civil wars in Syria and Libya.
Opec Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo said the late emir had played a significant role in paving the way for the creation in 2016 of the Opec+ group that includes leading producers such as Russia.
The alliance has altered production in line with market changes to ensure price stability.
Political observers view his death, following that earlier this year of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, as the end of an era in the Gulf, as a generation of younger rulers with assertive foreign policies have assumed power — particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have taken hawkish stands against rival Iran.
The vital Persian Gulf region is faced with increasing uncertainty as conservative Arab states — led by Saudi Arabia — antagonise Iran by building closer relations with the US and Israel.
Sheikh Nawaf takes the reins at a time when Kuwait is struggling with low oil prices in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in a country whose citizens enjoy a cradle-to-grave welfare system.
He lacks his late brother’s decades of experience as a regional peace mediator and an experienced diplomat.
He is therefore likely to focus on choosing a new crown prince who can build consensus in the ruling family and work with an independent-minded parliament that has often opposed the government’s economic reform efforts, diplomats and analysts say.
Kuwait is likely to continue to work for stability by staying on good terms with its often quarrelsome, powerful neighbours.
Sheikh Nawaf lacks the charisma and negotiating skills of the late emir, who spent four decades as Kuwait’s top diplomat, earning the respect of his neighbours for rebuilding ties in the Middle East after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
There are also concerns that his advanced age could lead to a power grab between rival branches of the ruling family.
A power struggle between the two major branches of the Kuwaiti ruling Sabah family — the Jaber and the Salem — is a possibility. They have tended to alternate on the throne for the past two centuries.
Sheikh Sabah broke with tradition by appointing Sheikh Nawaf, a fellow Jaber, to succeed him. And the man tipped to be the next crown prince is also a Jaber: Sheikh Nasser Sabah, the eldest son of the late ruler.
Despite being ruled by ageing men from the longstanding Al Sabah dynasty, Kuwait stands out among the conservative Gulf Arab states thanks to a vociferous opposition and an elected parliament that often calls government ministers to account.
Kuwait’s parliament has long prevented the government from giving a role to international oil companies in investing in the emirate’s upstream sector.
This has stymied efforts to develop complex sour and tight gas projects, resulting in domestic gas shortages and forcing Kuwait to import liquefied natural gas to feed power generation.
Following Sheikh Sabah's death, condolence messages streamed in from across the globe, including Israel, the US and the UK. Several Arab governments declared days of mourning and lowered their flags to half-staff.
Sheikh Sabah “was an extraordinary symbol of wisdom and generosity, a messenger of peace, a bridge-builder,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, said he was “pained” by the loss of Sheikh Sabah, who “painted an image of moderation and balance, for Kuwait and for the region.”