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Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait, Dies After Three-Year Reign

Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait, died aged 86 on December 16, 2023, marking an end to his three-year reign over the country, during which he focused on political reform and reconciliation with opposition parties.

A Life In Politics

Sheikh Nawaf was born on June 25, 1937, to Sheikh Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the tenth and longest-reigning ruler of Kuwait; Sheikh Nawaf was the fifth of his father’s ten sons. He became active in politics in 1962 at age 25 when he was assigned the governorship of the Hawalli region, a position he would hold for the next 16 years. In 1978, he was named the third Interior Minister of Kuwait, serving for a decade.

Perhaps his most significant political posting was his tenure as Kuwait’s fourth Defence Minister, beginning in 1988. Just two years after his appointment, in August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, swiftly defeating their tiny neighbour’s armed forces and occupying the country for seven months until its liberation by American-led coalition forces the following February.

The devastating defeat against Iraq led to Sheikh Nawaf’s reassignment to the position of acting Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and, ultimately, his removal from the cabinet entirely following a petition by several high-ranking military officials, who alleged that he issued orders for Kuwaiti forces not to resist the invading Iraqis. Sheikh Nawaf served as Deputy Chief of his country’s National Guard from 1994 to 2003, when he returned to the cabinet as the eighth Interior Minister and first Deputy Prime Minister. During this second tenure in the cabinet, he would promote international cooperation in the Persian Gulf and national unity against Islamist terrorism, particularly during an outbreak of violence in 2005.

The Heights of Power

In 2006, Sheikh Nawaf was named the crown prince of Kuwait by his half-brother, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the country’s fifteenth ruler and fifth Emir. His appointment marked a departure from the traditional succession practices of the al-Sabah dynasty. Previously, the position of crown prince had alternated between the al-Jaber and al-Salem branches of the royal family. However, both Sheikhs Nawaf and Sabah were from the al-Jaber clan.

Sheikh Nawaf would serve as crown prince until his half-brother’s passing in 2020 when he was affirmed as the sixth Emir of Kuwait by the National Assembly. His ascension occurred during a tumultuous period for Kuwait, with a decrease in oil prices causing an economic downturn, compounded by disruptions from the ongoing  COVID-19 pandemic.

During his reign as Emir, Sheikh Nawaf oversaw three parliamentary elections and the renovation of the Kuwaiti welfare state. According to the Associated Press, this process saw the nation’s monetary reserves severely depleted and caused difficulties in paying government employees. To alleviate some of the political pressure plaguing the country, in 2021, the Emir pardoned 35 dissidents, including 11 politicians arrested for forcing their way into the parliament building in the 2011 Arab Spring protest wave. This act of leniency gave him a widespread nickname, “the Emir of Pardons.”

While some significant changes occurred during his reign, Kuwaiti policy remained unchanged in certain aspects, with the country refusing to recognize Israel, even as neighbouring nations normalized relations with the state.

In 2021, Sheikh Nawaf travelled to the United States for medical reasons. Ongoing concerns about his health reached a nadir on November 29, 2023, when he was admitted to the hospital for emergency treatment. He passed away 17 days later.

A Controversial Succession

Sheikh Nawaf was succeeded by his half-brother, Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, 83, the third member of the al-Jaber lineage in a row to hold the position of Emir. According to Reuters, the choice of Sheikh Mishal as heir has sparked controversy among members of the al-Sabah dynasty, with the younger generations challenging their elders for more political power.

Fond Farewells From Global Leaders

World leaders expressed sadness at Sheikh Nawaf’s passing. American President Joe Biden issued an official statement calling the Emir “a valued partner and true friend of the United States,” praising him for promoting peace and stability in a troubled region. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's reaction was similar, and the President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, commended Sheikh Nawaf for wise leadership and commitment to good relations with the UAE.

Sheikh Nawaf is survived by his wife, four sons, and a daughter.


Photo credits: AP Photo (Nasser Waggi/Jaber Abdulkhaleg)

Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke


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