Octogenarian espionage operative Sheikh Meshal al Ahmad al Sabah has been voted in as crown prince of oil-rich Persian Gulf state of Kuwait after receiving unanimous parliamentary approval.

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The UK-educated prince was picked on Wednesday by the new ruler Sheikh Nawaf al Ahmad al Sabah, who assumed power as emir following the death of his brother Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah last week.

Conservatives

Sheikh Meshal, 80, and his brother Sheikh Nawaf, 83, are both deeply conservative and therefore unlikely to embark on any radical policy changes.

They are expected to follow Saudi Arabia’s position within Opec that is tasked with keeping deep output cuts in place to support the faltering oil market.

They will also continue to toe a neutral line in disputes between long-time foes Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Persian Gulf's major powers.

However, their advanced age casts a shadow over Kuwait’s future with analysts raising the possibility of a succession row between the two rival branches of the ruling Al Sabah family.

Diplomats say the new emir may delegate a larger portion of responsibilities to the crown prince because of his own low-key style and older age.

Sheikh Meshal, who had avoided political battles and public roles, spent much of his career helping to build the Gulf Arab state’s security and defence apparatus.

He had served as deputy chief of the National Guard since 2004 and was head of State Security for 13 years after joining the interior ministry in the 1960s.

He attended the UK’s Hendon Police College.

His appointment comes at a time when Kuwait is facing a liquidity crisis caused by low oil prices and the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Co-operation within Opec thus remains the thrust of his policies.

Impending powers struggle?

Sheikh Meshal’s rise stands in contrast to some other Gulf states, most notably neighbour Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi where younger princes have emerged as key decision makers.

A power struggle between the two major branches of the Kuwaiti ruling Sabah family — the Jaber and the Salem — is a possibility since they have tended to alternate on the throne for the past two centuries.

Both Sheikh Sabah and now Sheikh Nawaf have broken with tradition by appointing a fellow Jaber to succeed them.

Despite being ruled by ageing men, 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.