19.01.2024 Author: Madi Khalis Maalouf

New Emir, new Kuwait!

new Emir of Kuwait, Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah

The new Emir of Kuwait, Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, was sworn in on 20 December 2023, following the death of his older brother Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah on 16 December. Sheikh Nawaf was the sixteenth Emir and ruled for just three years from his accession to the throne in September 2020.

The late monarch took the throne at the venerable age of 84. At that time, he was already suffering from serious heart disease and internal organ damage. Perhaps for this reason, Sheikh Nawaf’s reign was characterised by relative calm. The past emir was focused solely on avoiding conflicts between the legislative and executive branches of government in the interests of Kuwait’s subjects and residents. Despite the absence of high-profile successes in international affairs like his predecessor Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Sheikh Nawaf’s tenure as head of state sought to address, first and foremost, the emirate’s macroeconomic challenges in the post-coronation crisis period.

However, it is necessary to turn the page in Kuwaiti history and consider what awaits us in the era of the new emir. Sheikh Mishal is a member of the ruling branch of the House of Sabah, traditionally holding key ministerial portfolios and senior positions in the security agencies. Given the ill health of his elder brother, Mishal Al-Ahmed, already crown prince, was the de facto leader of the state.

The current emir has spent more than thirty years in his country’s security bloc and was at the origin of the Kuwaiti security services and the National Guard. Sheikh Mishal is characterised by his entourage as a tough and pragmatic leader. For example, he was one of the fiercest opponents of pardoning the fugitives who stormed parliament in 2011. It was at his suggestion that even rehabilitated dissidents were deprived of the opportunity to participate in Kuwaiti political life. In addition, Sheikh Mishal is the author of the idea to revise the election law, the essence of which was to tighten the nomination procedure for candidates to the National Assembly. In this way, the then Crown Prince tried to fight the dominance in the Kuwaiti parliament of tribesmen, Islamists, supporters of the 2011 dissidents, as well as corrupt protégés of oligarchic clans.

Apparently, now Emir Mishal will continue the fight against internal challenges. The economy can be identified as the key area of activity of the new leader. For example, Kuwait had an acute liquidity problem even before the Coronacrisis. During the pandemic years, the cabinet decided to use sovereign funds (the “Future Generations Fund”) to provide salaries for civil servants and ensure the smooth operation of the country’s oil sector. However, financial borrowing from the sovereign funds is exceptional, as these funds are rotated around the world to provide Kuwait with investment income and, if withdrawn repeatedly, the Future Generations Fund would simply cease to work. Thus, interventions in the Emirate’s economy cannot be endless.

El Kuwait has tried to buy this situation by increasing “hidden taxes”, among them various duties and levies. At the same time, prices for petrol, housing and utilities and real estate were increased. Despite the fact that the local Ministry of Finance touched not the most sensitive items, it aroused the anger of the population, which instantly resulted in protest actions and degradation of the conflict between the National Assembly and the Cabinet of Ministers. Government members were accused of corruption and bribery, causing high-profile scandals and resignations, as well as the dissolution of parliament and the cabinet.

In the current circumstances, the salvation for Kuwait may be the activation of the foreign policy direction. Successes on the foreign track will help the new emir to strengthen his authority among the population, as well as to make closer ties with other monarchies of the Persian Gulf. It is no secret that during Sheikh Nawaf’s reign, Kuwait lost its role as Saudi Arabia’s “favourite little brother”. Nawaf Al-Ahmad was pushed out of this position by Sultan Haysam bin Tariq of Oman, who orientated himself in time and assumed the role of the main mediator in intra-Gulf affairs, receiving generous loans and funding for joint investment projects with the KSA and the UAE.

It seems that the son of the late Sheikh Nawaf and the main candidate for the position of the Emirate’s new Crown Prince, Ahmad Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, may play a role in this context. To do so, he needs to replicate the Omani script of using his future post to build foreign relations and manage media dossiers. Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, like his Omani counterpart Crown Prince Theyazin, is relatively young by Kuwaiti standards (he is now 67) and has every chance of returning Kuwait to Saudi favourites. Here we are primarily talking about the development of mega-infrastructure projects linked to neighbouring Iraq (it is planned to disconnect the Arab republic from the Iranian power grid and connect it to the GCC), the construction of transport and logistics hubs, the implementation of green initiatives in the Arabian Peninsula under the patronage of the KSA, the completion of the construction of a large maritime hub on Faw Island, and the re-export of food products from Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

However, the main driver of the Kuwaiti economy is still the oil sector, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of GDP. Taking this aspect into account, it can be concluded that the emirate’s revenues will largely depend on the OPEC and OPEC+ agreements. The current revitalisation of Saudi and UAE relations with Russia to maintain stability in the oil market dictates its trends. If Kuwait could utilise its opportunities (Kuwait’s oil reserves are roughly equal to those of Iraq and Saudi Arabia) and join the negotiations behind closed doors, the emirate could become the third most influential monarchy in the Persian Gulf, surpassing its closest rivals Qatar and Oman.

In order to strengthen its voice among its GCC neighbours, a trump card for Kuwait could be the development of relations with Moscow, taking into account its position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Within the framework of such co-operation it would be expedient to revive such files as tourism, culture and education, where there are already successful examples. For example, thanks to agreements between Kazan University and universities in Egypt and Morocco, student exchanges take place on a regular basis. The recent launch of direct flights between El Kuwait and Kazan may contribute to the development of this process.

Who knows, perhaps the new tandem of ruling sheikhs will be able to bring Kuwait to the forefront of world politics and economy.


Madi Khalis Maalouf, political observer, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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