Brussels MENA Briefing: Kuwait and the post-Sheikh Sabah Era

Brussels MENA Briefing: Kuwait and the post-Sheikh Sabah Era

December 1, 2020

On December 1, the EastWest Institute (EWI) and the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) hosted the ninth “Brussels MENA Briefing”—a series of after-work briefings on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region—on “Kuwait and the post-Sheikh Sabah Era”.

Speakers included Vice Admiral (ret.) Ahmad Al-Mulla, advisor to the Kuwaiti Ministry of Defense, and Dr. Courtney Freer, assistant professorial research fellow at the Middle East Center of the London School of Economics. Well-known experts on the Persian Gulf region and members of the European policy community virtually attended this briefing, which was held under the Chatham House Rule.

Speakers began by highlighting the main accomplishments of Kuwait’s late Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Shabah. Among them, his efforts towards women empowerment, strategic development policies and a neutral foreign policy aimed at protecting Kuwait from conflicts in its immediate neighborhood stood out for the speakers—in particular, Kuwait’s neutrality as a country located in the “triangle of danger” between Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. Many top officials perceived Sheikh Sabah as a “humanitarian leader” with Kuwait being on the forefront of financial aid and the coordination of donor conferences for countries in conflict.

Both speakers held that the legacy Sheikh Sabah leaves behind cannot be filled by his successor and half-brother Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah alone; the entire Kuwaiti political establishment must invest in continuing the path outlined by the late Sheikh Sabah. Speakers noted that Sheikh Nawaf has left the Kuwaiti cabinet untouched—an important indicator for demonstrating his commitment to ensuring continuity.

Among the most important challenges ahead, speakers emphasized the need to tackle comprehensively endemic corruption in both the private and public sectors . The economic transformations in light of the country’s demography, the changing geopolitics of energy and the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Kuwait’s various business sectors require strategic and long-lasting readjustment policies.

One speaker observed that Kuwait’s parliament is representative of the ethnic and sectarian diversity of the nation, a unique characteristic that ought  to be safeguarded. Participants held that this domestic pluralism entails a pluralistic foreign policy approach, which seeks to balance conflicting interests. This diversity is illustrated in the country’s tolerance of the political presense of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its leniency towards  a powerful Shia parliamentary faction. Both experts argued that these disparate  political fractions impact the country’s foreign policy—for instance, in its overall pan-Arab outlook, as well as its continued support for the Palestinian cause.

Considering the country’s efforts to “nationalize” the Kuwait private and public sector, one speaker pointed out that it remains to be seen whether this process will change public political attitudes, impacting the future composition of the parliament. Given the importance of this process, both speakers held that Sheikh Nawaf will be well-advised to not view his reign as a one-man show, but to seek the involvement of Kuwait’s entire political class.

Adnan Tabatabai, MENA Briefing