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Kuwait’s late emir body flown home as his successor is sworn in

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The body of Kuwait’s late ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah arrived home Wednesday after he died in the US at the age of 91, paving the way for his half-brother to be sworn in as the new emir.

Sheikh Sabah, an acclaimed diplomat and mediator who ruled the oil-rich nation for 14 years, had been undergoing hospital treatment in Minnesota since July.

A Kuwaiti government Airbus A340 bearing his remains landed in the capital, where the authorities blocked roads to allow passage of a convoy to the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque for funeral prayers before the burial.

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The new emir, 83-year-old Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al-Sabah who was sworn in at the National Assembly earlier Wednesday, was at the airport along with other Kuwaiti officials, all wearing masks in line with anti-coronavirus measures.

His late emir’s remains were wrapped simply in a Kuwaiti flag.

According to the royal court, the funeral will be “restricted to the emir’s relatives” — a move likely designed to avoid large crowds due to the global health crisis.

Qatar’s ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani — embroiled in a Gulf diplomatic dispute in which Kuwait has mediated — arrived in Kuwait to take part in the funeral processions, according to official Qatari media.

Sheikh Sabah earned a reputation as a shrewd, unshakeable leader who helped steer his country through the 1990 Iraqi invasion, crashes in global oil markets and upheavals in parliament and on the streets.

World leaders and Kuwaitis alike have hailed the legacy of the late emir, architect of the nation’s modern foreign policy and mediator in some of the worst crises to grip the Gulf.

“This man was the safety valve of the Arab world, not just for Kuwait,” Bandar al-Dahani, a Kuwaiti citizen, told AFP.

“God willing, that goodness will be in Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf and he will follow the emir’s path.”

Generational transition looms
Sheikh Nawaf, who has held high office for decades but earned a reputation for modesty, was visibly emotional as he addressed the National Assembly.

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“I promise you that I will do my best and everything in my power to preserve Kuwait, its security and stability, and to ensure the dignity and well-being of the people,” he said after taking the oath of office.

He called for unity in facing the region’s challenges and committed himself to Kuwait’s “democratic approach” in the address before lawmakers, who were spaced out and wore masks in line with coronavirus precautions.

Kuwait, unlike other Gulf states, has a lively political arena with a fully elected parliament that enjoys wide legislative powers and can vote ministers out of office.

Sheikh Nawaf, who was named heir apparent in 2006, takes over as Kuwait faces the repercussions of the coronavirus crisis, which triggered a sharp decline in oil prices and severe economic consequences for Gulf states.

He served as defence minister when Iraqi troops rolled into the oil-rich emirate in 1990, and also as interior minister in the face of challenges from Islamist militants.

Analysts do not expect him to usher in major policy changes, despite historic decisions by Kuwait’s neighbours, the UAE and Bahrain, to establish relations with Israel.

Normalisation with the Jewish state is highly unpopular among the Kuwaiti public, which largely backs the Arab world’s historic position of demanding a resolution of the Palestinian cause before diplomatic concessions to Israel.

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Despite expectations of a smooth succession, there could be more spirited debate over who the new crown prince should be.

Kuwait’s constitution stipulates that the ruler should be a descendant of the nation’s founder, Mubarak al-Sabah. By tradition, the throne has for the past four decades alternated between two branches of the family — the descendants of his sons, Salem and Jaber.

However, when Sheikh Sabah, who is from the Jaber branch, ascended to the throne in 2006, he named his half-brother as his heir, sidelining the Salem branch.

Contestants for the newly vacated role of crown prince include Sheikh Sabah’s son and former deputy prime minister Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti political heavyweight.

“Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed should be viewed more as a caretaker than as a watershed new leader,” said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Behind the scenes, however, younger princes would likely continue to compete to succeed him.”

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