Sheikh Rising
Kuwait's political makeover.


After more than a week of intense behind-the-scenes power struggle, Kuwait’s ruling Al Sabah family has decided to separate the position of the Prime Minister from that of the crown prince, ending a tradition that dates back to the state’s independence more than 40 years ago.

According to sources in Kuwait the debate within the family was a cliffhanger right to the end with supporters and opponents of the move determined not to budge. It was, in the end, the emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who closed the debate by endorsing the separation.

The move means that Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber, the veteran foreign minister and deputy prime minister, now assumes the premiership with a free hand to form a cabinet of his choosing. Sheikh Sabah has been acting prime minister for almost a decade, largely a result of the crown prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Saad Abdallah al-Sabah being in poor health.

Sheikh Sabah is expected to announce his full new cabinet within a week, in time for a presentation to the new national assembly that was elected ten days ago.

“Sheikh Sabah has been getting the flak all these years without having the free hand any normal prime minister enjoys,” says one of his close advisers. “Now that he is [in charge] he knows that he will get both the credit and the blame.”

The separation of the post of prime minister from the position of the crown prince is important for a number of reasons. To begin with it ends the effective duality of authority under which some ministers were close to the crown prince while others were closer to the acting premier. That duality at times led to ugly personal clashes behind the scenes while preventing the cabinet from adopting a unified position on some crucial issues such as privatization and the extension of the franchise to women.

The move is also an important step in strengthening the parliament’s oversight role. Under the Kuwaiti constitution both the emir and the crown prince are above criticism and thus cannot be subjected to the normal rough-and-tumble of the parliamentary process. As prime minister, Sheikh Sabah, however, could be taken to task by the parliament and subjected to more intrusive grilling.

The move also puts an end to excuses that the split in the cabinet prevented it from pushing through major reform projects in economic and social domains.

The new cabinet is expected to be younger and better educated. Sheikh Sabah has repeatedly said that he regards further democratization as an essential element in strengthening Kuwait’s national defense and preserving its security. As prime minister he is certain to work more closely with the parliament and encourage greater governmental transparency.

The new prime minister faces four key challenges. The first is to prove that, now that he is in charge, he is capable of developing a national strategy for a country that has lived on a day-to-day basis for more than a decade.

Sheikh Sabah is one of the region’s most experienced politicians, having first entered government when John F. Kennedy was the U.S. president. But, both as foreign minister, and then as deputy premier, he has always been more of an executant than a strategist. His critics say that he lacks a coherent vision for the future and his commitment to reform is no more than a tactic designed to isolate his rivals within the ruling family. His friends, however, insist that Sheikh Sabah’s openness to the outside world, his grasp of the modern realities, and his sincere attachment to pluralist politics will enable him to preside over the most important reform program that Kuwait has experienced since independence.

The second challenge that Sheikh Sabah faces is to forge a coalition in favor of reforms beyond the small though vocal academic and media personalities often described as ” liberals.” This is no easy task. The current social trend in Kuwait, marked by tribalism, is away from reforms.

The third challenge facing the new prime minister is to review Kuwait’s regional and international policy in the wake of the change of regime in Iraq. With Iraq likely to emerge as a major player in U.S. strategy in the region, Kuwait is certain to lose much of its value for Washington in both military and political terms. One way that Kuwait could retain its importance for the U.S., and the West as a whole, would be to present itself as a model for political and social development in the Muslim world.

The fourth challenge that Sheikh Sabah faces is, perhaps, the most complex: It is to develop a new modus vivendi between the ruling family and the urban classes who wish to increase the powers of the parliament at the expense of the ruling family. To face that challenge Sheikh Sabah would need to reunify the ruling family, work out a consensus on the complex issue of succession, and make sure that his cabinet members become active participants in the political debate. The idea that the cabinet could stand above politics, or aside it, is no longer tenable.

Well-placed sources say Sheikh Sabah intends to engage the new parliament in a speedy process of reform. The privatization package, presented in 1992 but never implemented, is likely to be revived as an urgent priority. The new government may also present an early bill on women’s enfranchisement, although some of Sheikh Sabah’s closest aides say this is not a priority. Educational reform, measures to combat youth unemployment and a gradual end to some costly subsidies are also expected to feature in the new government’s policy plans.

Sheikh Sabah is likely to come under pressure to allow the formation of political parties. But it is almost certain that he will resist that in the name of preserving the constitution. He is also likely to ignore calls for a more active pan-Arab role for Kuwait, while seeking closer integration within the <a href=>Gulf Cooperation Council</A> region.

“No one knows how Sheikh Sabah will perform now that he is in full control,” a newly elected member of the Kuwaiti parliament told reporters Tuesday.

“But one thing is certain: We can now have a unified government with a clear chain of command. We would know which bag to punch when there is a need.”

— Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian journalist and author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. Taheri is available through


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