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Kuwait has a new ruler

 Like his immediate predecessor, Kuwait’s new ruler is taking over in his 80s and will be confronted with the same economy-hobbling political dysfunction that has for years doomed reforms.

But there are differences in this succession as well as similarities, and how they play out will help dictate whether 83-year-old Emir Sheikh Mishaal Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah can break the OPEC member state free of its paralysis. 

Fledgling efforts to reconcile the Arab Gulf’s sole elected parliament with a prime minister’s office filled by royal appointment have at least begun, and Sheikh Mishaal has indicated his support for bringing in fresh faces.

He now has a free hand in the formation of any new government, and will consult with prominent ruling family members to choose his successor, which he has one year to do. But, it’s unlikely Kuwait will follow neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in handing powers to a younger generation. Traditionally, Kuwaiti crown princes are chosen based on extensive experience in government posts. Any crown prince must also be a descendant of the founder of modern Kuwait, Mubarak Al-Kabeer, who died in 1915.

“The focus should be on whether the next tier of leadership — crown prince and government choices included — will deliver or not, irrespective of age considerations," said Bader Al-Saif, an assistant professor at Kuwait University and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Onus on delivery."

Sheikh Mishaal’s nominee will require the endorsement of parliament, and his choice needs to be balanced with whoever is chosen as the next prime minister, since a new cabinet is widely expected to be formed. In his opening address to parliament in October, Sheikh Mishaal criticized both elected lawmakers and the appointed cabinet for failing to live up to expectations.

Born in 1940, he’s a brother of three former rulers and succeeds his half brother, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who died on Saturday. He graduated from Hendon Police College in the UK in 1960 before joining the Interior Ministry and later heading Kuwait’s state security department becoming deputy chief of the National Guard. 

Sheikh Mishaal was appointed crown prince in October 2020 and had largely been acting head of state since November 2021, when Sheikh Nawaf delegated most of his responsibilities as he periodically traveled abroad for medical treatment. 

Now that he’s ruler in his own right, analysts will be looking for signs of how Sheikh Mishaal — who has five sons and seven daughters — will govern. The nation was home to about 8% of oil reserves located in member countries of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries at the end of 2022, according to the OPEC website.

While oil and foreign policy are unlikely to substantially change, pressure for some form of political reform is growing. Kuwait’s loosely aligned opposition dominates the 50-member legislature, and has been using its clout. Still, the fact that opposition lawmakers with good ties to Kuwait’s current prime minister have clout in parliament, has helped pave the way for smoother relations between the government and legislators after years of squabbling.

With political parties not legalized, parliament is often filled with populist independents who clash with government ministers they accuse of being too soft on corruption. While Kuwait’s political system is freer than others in the Gulf, the emir must approve all laws.

One of the world’s richest countries, Kuwait has lacked a stable government for many years, often reaching a level of political impasse that contrasts with the unchallenged power wielded by ruling families in neighboring Gulf countries. 

While there is generally more agreement between the two powers, the political squabbling has delayed the passage of laws, including a bill that would allow the government to borrow or dip into its sovereign wealth fund in times of need, leaving Kuwait especially vulnerable to external shocks, such as the Covid crisis.

Kuwait posted its first surplus in the year through March, ending nine straight years of deficit as a boom in oil revenue and more controlled spending delivered a boost for one of the Middle East’s biggest crude producers. A cash crisis in 2020, exacerbated by the pandemic and a plunge in oil prices, left the government scrambling to pay state salaries. The recovery in crude has since relieved pressure on the treasury but problems remain.

Parliament has opposed any reallocation of state handouts, though nearly three-quarters of expenditure is soaked up by salaries and subsidies, while introducing a value-added tax or privatizing state-owned assets would also need lawmaker assent.

The economy’s saving grace, the $700 billion Future Generations Fund that’s run by the world’s oldest sovereign wealth fund and designed as a savings pot for life after oil, is largely unbreakable without parliament’s approval.

Former emir Sheikh Nawaf initiated a nationwide reconciliation and took steps to ease the standoff with parliament, including several pardons for self-exiled opposition members and activists. Kuwaitis have more hope today that, with the improvement in national dialog, the government and parliament will cooperate to resolve long-standing issues related to economic, political and social reform, and attract much needed foreign investment. 

“Healing the nation and addressing political grievances is the gateway to addressing other domains in need of attention," Al-Saif said. “Sheikh Mishaal is expected to continue the reconciliation to then focus on the much needed economic reforms and uplifting basic services."