Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Nawaf dies at 86, Sheikh Meshaal named successor

Heir Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, 83, replaces Sheikh Nawaf who had ruled for three years.

Kuwait emir
Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah ruled for three years before his death [File: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP]

Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah has died at 86.

“With great sadness and sorrow, we – the Kuwaiti people, the Arab and Islamic nations, and the friendly peoples of the world – mourn the late His Highness the emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, who passed away to his Lord today,” Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah al-Sabah, the minister of his emiri court, said in a statement aired on state television on Saturday.

Authorities gave no cause of death, but announced the start of a 40-day official mourning period and a three-day closure of government departments.

Kuwait’s crown prince and his half-brother, Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, 83, was subsequently named new emir, a statement from Issa Al-Kandari, the deputy prime minister and minister of state for cabinet affairs said.

Sheikh Nawaf was sworn in in September 2020 after the death of his half-brother, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, in the United States at the age of 91.

“This is a very sad day for Kuwait. The sheikh has only done good for the country. His legacy will be remembered fondly,” Bader al-Saif, a history professor at Kuwait University, told Al Jazeera. “His era is notable even though it is the third shortest in Kuwaiti history.”

Sheikh Nawaf held high office for decades before he took power. Named heir apparent in 2006, he was serving as defence minister when Iraqi troops invaded the oil-rich emirate in 1990. He also worked as interior minister in the face of challenges from armed groups.

Popular within the ruling al-Sabah family, he had a reputation for modesty and largely maintained a low profile.

“He’s known as the emir of pardons,” al-Saif said.

“He has led the largest reconciliation in modern Kuwaiti history with a series of amnesties, release of prisoners and citizenships. He has also opened up to the opposition and opened the parliament again to all voices, and opened up to taking away from the government’s role voting for the speaker of the house, which was really crucial to the positionality of the people and the popular opinion.”

‘Insider, outsider’

Successor Sheikh Meshaal is “an insider and an outsider at the same time”, al-Saif said.

“He has been accompanying emirs in all of their decisions and government practices. He comes in with a view to preserve what Kuwait has had and to moving it forward. Succession has been smooth in Kuwait. It is guided by a constitution and this process will unfold as we speak in the coming days,” he added.

When Sheikh Nawaf became emir three years ago, he had to steer Kuwait’s economy through a crisis caused by a fall in oil prices that saw the country’s credit rating cut by international agencies in 2020.

He acknowledged the “serious” challenges in his inauguration speech at the time and the government spent heavily – doubling public debt in 18 months – to guide the state through the COVID-19 pandemic. He made few dramatic changes, however.

In late November, Sheikh Nawaf was rushed to hospital for an unspecified illness, the state news agency KUNA reported. In the time since, the tiny, oil-rich nation had been waiting for news about his health.

Sheikh Nawaf had handed over power several times during his rule to his deputy while facing medical checks and other issues. State-run media had previously reported that he travelled to the United States for unspecified medical checks in March 2021.

Born in 1937, Sheikh Nawaf was the fifth son of Kuwait’s late ruler from 1921 to 1950, Sheikh Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.

He received secondary schooling in Kuwait but did not go on to higher education.

He started his political career at 25 as governor of Hawalli province.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies