Kuwait’s Sheikh Nawaf: from hostage negotiator to ‘unifying’ Emir

All eyes are on who Sheikh Nawaf selects as his crown prince

Who is Sheikh Nawaf, Kuwait's new emir?

Who is Sheikh Nawaf, Kuwait's new emir?
Powered by automated translation

Kuwait's newly appointed Emir, Sheikh Nawaf, is an experienced and respected figure seen as a unifying force to maintain the Gulf state's policies of moderation and diplomacy, experts told The National.

Sheikh Nawaf, 83, succeeded Sheikh Sabah who passed away at the age of 91 on Tuesday. He was officially sworn in as the country’s new ruler on Wednesday.

“The country has succeeded in overcoming difficulties by joining forces and uniting with the world, and I will do my best to preserve the country's dignity and protect its security," he said as he expressed support for the state, its institutions and its constitution.

Sheikh Nawaf, who was named crown prince in 2006, has had an extensive political career and held positions of importance during crucial moments for the country.

Sheikh Nawaf was born June 25, 1937, the year before Kuwait discovered the oil that would make this nation among the richest in the world per capita.

He served as interior minister from 1978 to 1988, a time when the country was hit with terrorist attacks and hijackings.

Sheikh Nawaf personally mediated the peaceful resolution of the 1980 Boeing 727 flight hijacking, convincing the two Jordanians responsible to surrender without harming any passengers.

It was not his only hostage and hijacking negotiation.

He was also in the position during terror attacks such as the 1983 bombings at six key Kuwaiti and foreign sites, including the US embassy.  
Leaving the Interior Ministry, Sheikh Nawaf was appointed defence minister as tension with neighbouring Iraq escalated in the build-up to Baghdad's 1990 invasion.

After liberation, he briefly served as social affairs and labour minister, then as the deputy chief of Kuwait’s National Guard, and again as interior minister.

With pressing home affairs, Sheikh Nawaf is likely to focus more on domestic issues for the time being, analysts and experts said.

Parliament is deadlocked with the government over debt laws that Finance Minister Barak Al Sheetan said in April risked leaving the country without the cash needed to pay wages, as the Covid-19 response eats through reserves.

Parliamentary elections are also planned for next year, although no date has yet been set.

But perhaps most crucially, all eyes will be on Sheikh Nawaf as he selects his own crown prince, a figure who usually tries to bridge gaps between government and parliament and who can build consensus in the ruling family.

“The Gulf and the Arab world has lost a great visionary and humane leader with the passing of Sheikh Sabah,” said Abdullah  Al Saud, visiting research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at London’s King's College.

“Like his predecessor, Sheikh Nawaf is a very respected figure regionally and internationally and is expected to be a unifying force locally. However … the question is: Who will be his crown prince?”

The decision on a new crown prince is expected to take some time, especially as the country is in mourning, and the ruling family will make its decision in  coming weeks.

But it is a process that the US, Kuwait’s Gulf neighbours and Iran will be closely watching, said Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

While the process continues, the question is whether Kuwait can maintain its role as a mediator in the region, said Elana DeLozier, a research fellow and Gulf specialist at Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Sheikh Sabah continued to play that role in recent years, using his famous shuttle diplomacy to try to patch up the [Qatar] rift," Ms DeLozier said.

"He was able to stave off more conflict, which was a success, but he was not able to bring the parties entirely back together.

“It is not clear that Sheikh Nawaf will have any more success. We will see in time."