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The Ruling Family

1Sheikh Sabah, the First 17561762
2Sheikh Abdullah17621812
3Sheikh Jaber, the First18121859
4Sheikh Sabah, the Second18591866
5Sheikh Abdullah, the Second18661892
6Sheikh Mohamed, the First18921896
7Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah18961915
8Sheikh Jaber, the Second19151917
9Sheikh Salem Al Mubarak19171921
10Sheikh Ahmed Al Jaber19211950
11Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem19501965
12Sheikh Sabah Al Salem19651977
13Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah19772006
14Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah20062006
15Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah2006 2020
16Shaykh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al Sabah 2020
17Sheikh Meshaal Al Ahmad Al Sabah
???Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah

Given a choice between action and inaction, the Al-Sabah usually choose inaction. The Al-Sabah family prefer to avoid a messy, public confrontation over succession. Of the numerous factions within the Al-Sabah family, the Al-Ahmed line of the Jaber branch is currently the most powerful, particularly in numbers.

Article 4 of Kuwait's 1962 Constitution clearly details the succession process. Only descendants of Mubarak Al-Sabah, the founder of modern Kuwait, are permitted to become Amir. Although there are four branches of the Mubarak family, tradition dictates that only the descendants of the two main branches, Jaber and Salem, are considered candidates for Amir. With one exception in 1965, succession has alternated between these two branches of the family. Per Article 4, a Crown Prince must be appointed by the Amir within a year of accession and approved by a majority of the National Assembly. If the Amir fails to designate a Crown Prince or if the National Assembly vetoes his first choice, he must nominate three descendants of Mubarak Al-Sabah, one of whom is chosen by a majority of the National Assembly. If the Amir dies before nominating a Crown Prince, the matter is referred to the Cabinet, which votes on a new Amir in a special session. While this is the formal procedure, the real succession decisions are made by the Al-Sabah during private family meetings.

The modern political history of Kuwait began in the early eighteenth century when a number of families of the Bani Utub section of the Anaizah tribe migrated from central Arabia, settling eventually in Kuwait. Once in Kuwait, they established a self-governing political unit. The date of 1756 is conventionally chosen as the year when the settlers decided to select as their leader Sabah, an Al Sabah shaykh, who was succeeded by his son Abd Allah, in turn succeeded by his son Jabir. All subsequent rulers historically have come from the Al Sabah line, chosen by family council, in consultation with the leading merchant families who, along with the tribal elite, exercise some restriction over the shaykhs' political autonomy.

The shaykh's primary task was to represent his community in foreign policy, negotiating with Ottoman Turkey and with neighboring tribes. The one major and unsuccessful challenge to this system of rule occurred in the 1760s when the Al Khalifa family disagreed with the Al Sabah and in consequence left Kuwait for Qatar, and then Bahrain, where the Al Khalifa continue to rule. Despite the rift, the two settlements maintained good relations, including close trade ties.

In the nineteenth century, members of the Al Sabah oversaw the growing trade and pearling settlement in Kuwait. The rulers also developed a cordial relationship with Britain, beginning with the first contacts with the British East India Company in 1775. As members of a small, vulnerable settlement, Kuwait's rulers attempted to maintain a polite but distant relationship with all the local powers, notably the British, the Wahhabis of Arabia, and the Ottomans. It was only under Abd Allah Al Sabah II, who ruled from 1866 to 1892, that Kuwait began to edge away from this policy of neutrality. Abd Allah developed close ties with the Ottomans, even taking the Ottoman title, albeit largely as a formality, of provincial governor (qaimaqam) in 1871. In practical terms, Kuwait's domestic politics remained unchanged because the Ottoman government did not interfere in the selection of rulers and laws. In any event, this tilt was completely reversed when, following the four-year rule of Muhammad Al Sabah, Mubarak the Great acceded to the rule from 1896 to 1915.

Kuwait came into the British sphere of influence at the end of the nineteenth century when Mubarak sought British support against Ottoman forces. The Ottomans were backing allies of Mubarak's brothers, Kuwait's previous rulers, whom Mubarak had killed on taking power in 1896. Uneasy about Ottoman intentions, Mubarak reversed his predecessors' pro-Ottoman policy and approached Britain, seeking a more formal alliance. Britain, concerned with growing European interests and notably with an Ottoman concession to Germany for construction of a Berlin-to- Baghdad railroad--with a proposed spur line to Kuwait--agreed. Britain signed a treaty with Kuwait in 1899 that promised Mubarak British support and, in return, gave Britain control of Kuwait's foreign policy. This treaty governed relations between the two states until Kuwait's independence in 1961. It granted Britain tremendous influence, most notably in foreign and economic policy.

After Mubarak's death, Kuwait was ruled by two of his sons, Jabir Al Sabah (1915-17) and Salim Al Sabah (1917-21). Thereafter, with one exception, only descendants of Mubarak through these two sons would rule Kuwait, thus forming a major cleavage within the ruling family. After Salim's death in 1921, Kuwait was ruled for nearly three decades by Ahmad al Jabir Al Sabah. Ahmad al Jabir's rule witnessed a serious effort to constrain ruling family power. In 1938 a rebellion, known locally as the Majlis Movement, developed. New issues arose. Kuwait was in the midst of a serious recession as a result of the general decline of the pearling industry, the Great Depression, and a trade dispute with Saudi Arabia that prompted a Saudi embargo. Simultaneously, the recently signed oil concession with KOC promised better times ahead if the resulting income were not monopolized by the ruling family. To prevent that from happening, the leading merchants began petitioning the ruler for a series of reforms. In June the merchants took their protest a step further, holding elections for a legislative assembly to implement the desired reforms using these new revenues. The Legislative Assembly ruled for six months until finally put down by the ruler and his tribal backers. The assembly, however, came to be viewed as Kuwait's first prodemocracy movement. Its popularity gave the idea of formal representation a place in Kuwaiti popular history.

Ahmad al Jabir was succeeded by his cousin Abd Allah as Salim Al Sabah (1950-65), who oversaw the distribution of now substantial oil revenues, the consequent emergence of a large bureaucratic state, and the transformation of Kuwait into a wealthy oil-producing shaykhdom. In terms of internal developments, Abd Allah as Salim made two transformative political decisions. The first was to distribute these new revenues broadly throughout the population, primarily through wide-ranging social services, notably education and health care. The second was to introduce a greater degree of political participation to Kuwait in the form of the newly elected National Assembly. This body held its first elections in 1963. Abd Allah as Salim also oversaw Kuwait's transformation into a formally independent state on June 19, 1961, when he and British representatives signed new letters of friendship to replace the treaty of 1899.

When Abd Allah as Salim died in 1965, he was succeeded by his brother Sabah as Salim Al Sabah -- a somewhat unusual choice in that he, like Abd Allah as Salim, came from the Salim line rather than the Jabir line of the family, breaking the alternation between the two sides of the family that had existed since the rule of Mubarak's sons Jabir and Salim. Nonetheless, Sabah as Salim's rule proved to be largely a continuation and consolidation of policies set in place by Abd Allah as Salim. When Sabah as Salim died in December 1977, he was succeeded by Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad al Jabir Al Sabah, a succession that returned the former pattern of alternation between the lines of Jabir and Salim.

The influence of external events dominated Jabir al Ahmad's rule. The first was the Iran-Iraq War, which rapidly increased the level of political violence in this historically relatively peaceful shaykhdom. Major events included the 1983 bombing of the United States embassy and, probably most notable, the dramatic public assassination attempt on the amir in 1985. The tension associated with the war also exacerbated divisions within Kuwaiti society, notably that between Sunnis and Shia, and prompted the amir increasingly to limit public participation in political life. Although in 1980 Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad restored the National Assembly (which Sabah as Salim had abolished in 1976), the increasing political tension prompted him to do away with it again in 1986 and to introduce new measures curtailing civil and political rights. These measures prompted a wide range of opposition leaders--including old parliamentarians, Islamists (sometimes seen as fundamentalists), and merchants--to form the Constitutional Movement of 1989-90, a prodemocracy movement calling for the restoration of the National Assembly.

The second external event was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which, for the first time in Kuwait's history, placed the state under direct foreign rule. Although sovereignty was restored in February 1991, events leading up to the invasion and the amir's behavior during and after the occupation prompted open grumbling about the ruling family itself. The criticism centered on the amir and the fact that most of the ruling family spent the time of the Iraqi occupation in comfortable exile abroad and delayed their return to the country after the war ended.

In 1993 Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad still ruled Kuwait; his designated successor, Prime Minister Saad al Abd Allah as Salim Al Sabah, also came from the Al Sabah ruling family. Although the Al Sabah remained paramount, the family as a ruling institution had changed dramatically since it assumed its leading role in the mid-eighteenth century. First, succession patterns within the family had changed. In the nineteenth century, rule passed regularly from father to son. With the accession of Mubarak in the late nineteenth century, a new pattern was established that excluded all but Mubarak's line from the top position. This custom is formalized in the Kuwaiti constitution and in practice created a new pattern of alternation of rulers between the two lines of Mubarak's sons, Jabir and Salim. It was in keeping with this pattern that Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad (from the Jabir line) named as his crown prince and heir apparent Saad al Abd Allah as Salim, from the Salim line.

The relationship between the ruling family and Kuwaiti society also changed in more subtle ways. Members of the family other than the ruler, once first among equals in a society where merchants and other elites played an important role in decision making, became in the years after oil was discovered far wealthier because their wealth was guaranteed by a civil list--a list of sums appropriated to pay the expenses of a ruler and his household. Ruling family members also became socially more prominent and politically more important as they took over many of the state's highest posts. In part, this transformation occurred as a result of the emergence of a large state bureaucracy and the need Kuwaiti rulers felt to fill the state's highest posts with loyal supporters.

Shaykh Jaber led Kuwait through many political turns. At the outset of his rule, he reorganized Kuwait administratively and financially, which contributed to the development of the modern state. Shaykh Jaber's era was littered with many sharp political and regional turns. The Iran-Iraq war began a few years after he was appointed. He had to deal with the ramifications of that war, as well as, those of the Iranian Revolution. At that point in time, he stood firmly against allowing Kuwait being swept up in the violence of the region and he almost lost his life as a result of his courageous stance. He was not a fan of violence or dictatorship, he was humble and pious. The Iraqi invasion in 1990 was a great shock to Shaykh Jaber. After all that he had given Saddam's government during the Iran-Iran war, and after the terror Kuwait faced as a result of its support for Iraq during that war, Shaykh Jaber stood in awe of the magnitude of this betrayal to Kuwait. He also achieved great strides on the domestic political front, as it was he who dissolved the National Council in 1986 unconstitutionally when it was unable to work with the government. It was he who also refused the same type of action without the proper constitutional means.

His Highness the Amir, Shaykh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah died at dawn the morning of 15 January 2006. In accordance with Islamic tradition, the Amir will be interred the afternoon of January 15. While the cause of death was not announced, it is likely the Amir died of natural causes related to a stroke he suffered in 2001 and his long battle with Parkinson's disease.

Shaykh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah was selected Amir on 16 January 2006. His Highness had been a formidable force in creating a secure, safe Kuwait one that upheld the rights of citizens especially during his time as Minister of the Interior. His Highness Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah became the Crown Prince in 1978 and in terms of foreign affairs, contributed greatly to the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). On the domestic front, he promoted the social and economic development of the country, ensuring that Kuwaiti society was among the most advanced in the world. His Highness played a major role in liberating Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's regime and is therefore a popular and much loved figure for all Kuwaitis. New police and security systems were introduced during his reign. The Department of Emergency Medical Services (DEMS) was equipped with new vehicles, a central operations room was established and the reach and power of wireless stations was boosted. The Crown Prince had serious health problems. In 2001, he suffered serious brain damage from a stroke and is now confined to a wheelchair. He did not speak and did not appear to comprehend others' speech.

In Kuwait's idiosyncratic tradition of dynastic succession, in which two branches of the same family have alternated as Amir and Crown Prince since the death of Mubarak the Great in 1915. To the al-Salim -- already overmatched by the more numerous and better positioned al-Jaber progeny -- any abridgement of the Crown Prince's long-standing prerogatives could be interpreted as a step on the way to the ultimate removal of the Crown Prince himself.

On 29 January 2006, Shaykh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah became the 15th Amir of Kuwait after taking the constitutionally-mandated Amiri oath in front of Parliament and approximately 1,000 invited guests. Shaykh Sabah was nominated by the Council of Ministers on January 24 after Parliament unanimously voted the ailing Amir-designate, Shaykh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, medically unfit for the position.

Shaykh Sabah entered the National Council as Prime Minister and left an Amir. The loyalty with which Shaykh Sabah Al-Ahmed spoke of the departed Amir Shaykh Jaber Al-Ahmed and of the father Amir Shaykh Saad Al-Abdullah was not foreign to him. His concentration on the nation's role in making the decision popularly, preliminarily, and through the media was not far from his political experience, which he carried out with complete faith in democracy, freedom, and human rights. Those who paid close attention to the oath would realize that Kuwaitis were and remained the main concern of His Highness the Amir Shaykh Sabah Al-Ahmed.

The 2006 succession process was swift, Sheikh Sabah came to power in an unusual manner after parliament deemed then-Crown Prince Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah unfit to rule due to health concerns. This process seemingly ended an alternation of power between the Al-Salem and Al-Jaber branches of the Al-Sabah ruling family. Since 2006, the Al-Jaber branch held both the position of the emir and the crown prince.

With the crown prince to become the deputy of the new monarch – 83-year-old Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah – and likely to become the next emir, the heir apparent is considered one of the most powerful political figures in the country. Under the Gulf state’s constitution, a new emir has a year to nominate a crown prince, who must then be approved by parliament. But the decision has often been taken just weeks after the swearing-in of a new monarch.

The late emir’s eldest son, Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, is known for being business-minded. Nasser Al-Ahmad, 72, has worked to diversify the country’s economy and was chair of Kuwait’s main planning committee – leading projects including the multi-billion-dollar Silk City, an economic hub in north Kuwait. He became defence minister in 2017, but lost the post in late 2019 amid a cabinet reshuffle and infighting within the ruling family over alleged government corruption.

Another potential candidate is the late emir’s nephew and former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah. Nasser Al-Mohammed, 79, was prime minister from 2006 to 2011. He notably stepped down in 2011 following “speculation from the opposition about his potential involvement in a corruption scandal,” said Freer, a research fellow at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre. In addition to his role as prime minister, Nasser Al-Mohammed also served as minister of the royal court from 1991 to 2006, and ambassador to Iran and Afghanistan between 1964 and 1979.

The late emir’s younger brother and deputy chief of the National Guard, Sheikh Meshaal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, does not have any alleged scandals and controversy associated with him; he has a very close relationship with the Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, and is viewed to have good relations with neighbours such as Saudi and the UAE. Kuwait’s parliament unanimously voted 08 October 2020 to endorse Sheikh Meshaal Al Ahmad Al Sabah as crown prince a day after the new emir named him for the post.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 17:42:10 ZULU