February 1, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 263

The Succession in Kuwait – The Triumph of Constitutional Order Over Tribal Norms

February 1, 2006 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Kuwait, The Gulf | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 263


The recent passing away of the Emir of Kuwait, and the events that led to the selection of a successor, provide an interesting example of the triumph of constitutional order and political correctness in a tribal society [1] over what would have been historically a cause to throw the gauntlet.

The Passing of the Emir

The Emir of Kuwait, Al-Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, passed away on January 15, 2006 at the age of 78, after 27 years as head of state. He was the 13th emir of the ruling Sabah family and the third since the country’s independence in 1961. Al-Sheikh Jaber suffered a stroke in the late 1990s and had spent most of the last four years in medical clinics in the U.K. and the U.S. His exercise of power had been waning for years.

The crown prince, Sa’ad al-Abdallah al-Sabah, had also served as prime minister. In 1997, Sa’ad had surgery for colon cancer and his health rapidly deteriorated thereafter. As a result, the ruling family decided in July 2003 to separate the functions of the crown prince from that of the prime minister. While Sa’ad remained as crown prince, although illness has increasingly limited his ability to function, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah was designated as the prime minister. Given the illness of Emir Jaber and the crown prince Sa’ad, the prime minister was the actual ruler of the country for the last four years.

The Issue of Succession

Upon the death of Jaber, Sa’ad, 75, the crown prince, was declared the Emir of the country. His designation as Emir [ruler and head of state] was also in keeping with the practice that the emirate rotates between the two branches of the Sabah family -al-Jaber and al-Salem. The current prime minister who is slated to be the next Emir is a member of al-Jaber branch, while the ailing Sa’ad is a member of al-Salem branch.

Under the provisions of the constitution the new Emir is required to be sworn in within eight days from the time the post becomes vacant, and the swearing in takes place in an open session of parliament. However, Crown Prince Sa’ad, who was declared Emir following the death of Jaber, is not competent even to recite the oath of office which consists of two lines, let alone serve as head of state. The issue of contention between the two branches of the family and their respective supporters outside the ruling family was whether Sa’ad should be allowed to become an Emir despite his illness or whether he should be replaced by the prime minister, Sheikh Sabah.

Tradition vs. Constitutional Norms

The supporters of tradition, led by Sheikh Salem al-Ali al-Sabah from the al-Salem branch of the family, who is also head of the National Guard, demanded that Sa’ad be allowed to ascend to the emirate. They argued that through the entire history of the country no Emir had died not in office, and that Sa’ad would be an exception if he were passed over. They also argued that, given Sa’ad’s medical condition, the demand for a public swearing in is tantamount to forcing his abdication. Finally, they insisted that Sa’ad should serve as Emir until Allah’s will has taken its course.

The speaker of the parliament Jasim al-Kharrafi, supported by constitutional scholars, argued that under the Kuwaiti constitution the swearing in of a new Emir must be performed in an open session of parliament. Al-Kharrafi said there was no “silent swearing in” or swearing in through a third party. Otherwise, the transfer of power would be perceived as having been carried out in secret, which would violate the provisions of the constitution.

The Constitutional Maneuvering

On January 20, the majority of the Sabah family swore allegiance [mubaya’ah] to Al-Sheikh Sabah as the next Emir of Kuwait. This designation was challenged by al-Salem branch through a letter allegedly signed by Sheikh Sa’ad asking the speaker of parliament to call a special meeting of parliament to allow Sheikh Sa’ad to take the oath of office on Monday, January 23 at 10:00 a.m. Recognizing the politically critical nature of the request, the speaker scheduled the swearing in ceremony for Tuesday, January 23 at 4:00 p.m., ostensibly to allow time for the ruling family to resolve the conflict within its own bounds.

To frustrate the attempts to force a swearing in ceremony by the rival branch of the family, Sheikh Sabah, the prime minister moved quickly by calling a special cabinet meeting on January 21. Under the Kuwaiti constitution, the cabinet could recommend to parliament the removal from power of an Emir if it is determined that he “has lost his health capability to exercise his constitutional prerogatives,” and this is precisely what the cabinet has decided to do. The cabinet asked the speaker to convene a meeting of parliament on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., ahead of the meeting scheduled for the swearing in, to vote on its recommendation to declare Sa’ad medically incompetent to ascend to the Emirate. While the scheduling maneuvering was going on, intensive negotiations between the two branches of the family had continued, often with the help of intermediaries.

In anticipation of a letter of abdication by Sheikh Sa’ad, the parliamentary session originally scheduled for January 24 at 10:00 a.m was postponed twice, until 2:00 pm., at which time the parliament met in a secret session and voted unanimously to remove Sheikh Sa’ad as Emir of Kuwait. Under the constitution, and in the absence of a crown prince, the cabinet as a whole was assigned the responsibility of the office of Emir until such time as parliament approves the selection of Sheikh Sabah as Emir of Kuwait.

The letter of abdication by Sa’ad was delivered to parliament shortly after it had voted to remove him from office.

Preference of Kuwaiti Politicians to Remain on the Sideline

As the conflict between the two branches of the Sabah family intensified, most of the political forces in Kuwait agreed on one principle: that it was entirely up to “the munificent ruling family” [al-‘aila al-hakima al-karima] to resolve the issue among its members and avoid a prolonged conflict that would harm the interests of the country. Practicing the old rule of self-preservation, most Kuwaiti politicians avoided siding with one branch of the family which could end up the loser. They preferred to stay on the sidelines.


The struggle for succession in Kuwait has demonstrated vividly the willingness of the competing political forces, in this case members of the ruling family, to resort to constitutional procedures rather than to force or violence to resolve power struggles.

It was perhaps reassuring for the Kuwaiti people that at the height of conflict, no member of the ruling family or any of the political figures threatened to use force to end the stalemate. When it was all over, the dean of the Sabah family, Sheikh Salem al-Ali al-Sabah, who instigated the conflict, was quoted as saying that after meeting “my brother Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, the bonds of affection and love of the al-Sabah family” shall remain intact. [2]

Sheikh Sabah, 75, had a pacemaker implanted in 1999. His performance in the last four years suggests that he is a ruler with reformist intentions. His conduct throughout the struggle for succession supports this assessment. Sheikh Sabah has taken the oath of office on January 30, and he is now the Emir of Kuwait.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] This dispatch has relied on the following references: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (January 15-19), al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 18-21; Al-Qabas (Kuwait) January 19-24; al-Hayat (London), January 19-20; and al-Jazeera TV, January 20-24, 2006.

[2] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), January 25, 2006.

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