Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait who took power as the ruler of his tiny oil-rich state at a time of paralysis and political infighting in 2020, has died. He was 86.
Kuwait’s state news agency announced his death on Saturday. In a statement, the Kuwaiti royal court said, “With great sadness and sorrow, we offer our condolences to the Kuwaiti people, Islamic and Arab nations, and the people of the world.”
One of Sheikh Nawaf’s earliest acts was to appoint a half brother, Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, a veteran intelligence and security czar, as his crown prince, or designated heir, to deputize for him at important political and state occasions.
Critics interpreted the appointment of Sheikh Mishal, now 83 — possibly the world’s oldest crown prince — as a sign that Kuwait would defy a trend toward generational change among the Persian Gulf’s ruling families in favor of a risk-averse gerontocracy committed to continuity.
On Saturday, Kuwait’s cabinet formally named Sheikh Mishal the new emir, and the government announced a 40-day mourning period. A new crown prince has not been appointed yet, leaving the line of succession unclear.
Under Sheikh Nawaf’s predecessor, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait had been a significant regional diplomatic player, mediating disputes such as a major rift between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side and the neighboring state of Qatar. As a member of the OPEC oil cartel and of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, Kuwait is a key American ally and was viewed as an anchor of moderation.
But those maneuvers seemed to be overtaken in Sheikh Nawaf’s time as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became an increasingly active player in the Middle East, seeking to reshape his country’s place in the world and positioning himself at the center of Arab diplomacy.
As the region shifted around them, many Kuwaitis have complained that despite their vast oil wealth, their country seemed paralyzed in a period of economic and cultural stagnation.
At the same time, Kuwait allows far greater freedom of expression than other Gulf countries, and its elected parliament — while it is often dissolved during the country’s frequent political turmoil — is more significant than the powerless consultative councils in the rest of the region.
Kuwait achieved independence from Britain in 1961. Since the world’s sixth largest oil reserves were discovered there in the 1930s, Kuwait has amassed enormous riches. While its total population is about four million, only 1.8 million are Kuwaiti citizens. The country’s sovereign wealth fund, the fifth largest in the world, is worth an estimated $803 billion.
Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah was born on June 25, 1937, in Kuwait City, a son of Sheikh Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who ruled Kuwait from 1921 to 1950. He married Sharifa Sulaiman al-Jasem al-Ghanim, and they had five children: four sons — Ahmad, Faisal, Abdullah and Salem — and a daughter, Sheikha al-Sabah. The eldest son, Ahmad, was appointed prime minister of Kuwait in July 2022.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Educated in Kuwait and Britain, Sheikh Nawaf entered public service relatively early, at age 25, as the governor of the Hawalli area of Kuwait in 1962. He became minister of the interior in 1978 and was appointed minister of defense 10 years later.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait of 1990 and his demotion to minister of labor and social affairs, Sheikh Nawaf became the deputy head of the 26,000-strong Kuwait National Guard. He returned to the Kuwaiti cabinet in 2003 as first deputy prime minister and minister of the interior.
Over the decades, Kuwait has maintained close ties to Washington, which had been a critical military ally — first in reversing the 1990 Iraqi invasion and then in the 2003 American push into Iraq, which used Kuwait as a critical springboard. Up to and including Sheikh Nawaf’s time as emir, the United States maintained a military presence in Kuwait.
At the time of the Iraqi invasion, Sheikh Nawaf was minister of defense. His rehabilitation after the war came slowly.
But when Sheikh Sabah became emir in 2006, Sheikh Nawaf was appointed crown prince within days, meaning that he was in line for automatic elevation to the rank of emir when Sheikh Sabah died in 2020 at age 91 after medical treatment in the United States. His time as emir was marked by political stalemate and frustration among Kuwait lawmakers, compounded by the economic woes wrought by falling oil prices during the coronavirus epidemic.
Unusually among the dynastic rulers of the Gulf, Kuwait’s royal family has long been challenged by the area’s most independent parliament, the National Assembly, which not only enacts legislation but also has oversight over the government and can interrogate ministers. At the same time, the emir has the power to dissolve parliament and rule by decree.
Since the inauguration of the 2023 parliament, the political deadlock has eased, with greater cooperation between the two branches of government and the passage of new legislation aimed at addressing economic and social issues.
During his reign, Sheikh Nawaf also issued three rounds of pardons aimed at national reconciliation, giving amnesty to many political dissidents, former members of Parliament and members of the ruling family. That effort was hailed by many in Kuwait’s public.
Yasmena AlMulla contributed reporting from Kuwait and Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.