KUWAIT (Reuters) - When Kuwait’s next ruler takes power he will need to reassure competing factions in the Al-Sabah dynasty that he is protecting their interests and maintaining stability, making progress toward democratic reforms unlikely, at least at the beginning.
Current ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, 83, has resisted opposition demands for more policy-making authority in an increasingly assertive parliament, which he has dissolved several times.
Designated successor Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the emir’s 75-year-old brother, will face the same pressures.
But with hundreds of senior Al-Sabah family members jostling for position and a rift between the two most powerful branches simmering beneath the surface, ensuring family unity will be the most urgent challenge.
Forging a consensus will not be easy, said Kristian Ulrichsen, research fellow on Gulf States at the London School of Economics.
“Any Kuwaiti leader will have two problems which are interconnected. One is to manage the inter-family factions and the other is to manage the relationship between the government and the parliament, the government basically being the family.”
Bills and the budget are approved by Kuwait’s elected parliament, but the top government posts are held by Al-Sabah family members. They also have senior roles in the National Guard, diplomatic corps, investment bodies and state companies.
Approved by parliament, Sheikh Nawaf is on course for an orderly succession when the time comes. The current emir, who had a pacemaker installed in 1999, travels frequently, and both he and the crown prince appear to be in good health.
Whatever happens in Kuwait, a major U.S. ally, will have implications for other monarchies in the region which also face pressure for political change in the wake of last year’s uprisings across the Arab world.
The tiny Gulf state is one of the richest in the world per capita thanks to its oil wealth and a small population of around 1.2 million nationals, who receive generous benefits, and some 2.4 million foreign workers.
It is also one of the region’s most politically liberal, with a voluble political debate, an elected legislative assembly that includes Sunnis, Shi‘ites, liberals and Islamists, as well as a lively press.
Frequent political upheavals have held up crucial investment and economic reforms, however - Kuwait has had ten governments and five dissolutions of parliament since early 2006.
At the same time the opposition has not achieved the critical mass that would seriously threaten the 250-year-old rule of the Al-Sabah family, analysts believe. Neither the parliamentary opposition nor the youth movement has suggested that is their aim.
Kuwaiti writer and blogger Dahem al-Qatani said change would be slow without a major threat, such as an economic crisis triggered by a steep fall in the oil price or a physical threat from neighboring countries like Iran or Iraq, which invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, sparking the first Gulf War.
“I don’t think that big change will happen unless it is necessary and it is related to danger,” he said.
Splits within the Al-Sabah family first appeared in 2006 after the tradition of alternating power between the Jaber and Salem branches was interrupted when the late Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah - a Salem - was forced to step down after just over a week in power due to sickness.
Rather than appointing another Salem, the family and parliament agreed to current emir Sheikh Sabah, who appointed another Jaber to succeed him in Sheikh Nawaf.
Analysts and members of parliament say members of the ruling family are now maneuvering for power and working behind the scenes to use parliament and political protests to push their agenda.
Sheikh Nawaf’s choice of prime minister, crown prince and advisers will be key. Observers say he is likely to give authority to his prime minister to manage the difficult relationship between the cabinet and parliament.
“In the past we had very powerful prime ministers with the ability to act, to negotiate. I think he will follow this example,” said an editor of one of Kuwait’s major newspapers who, like many interviewed for this article, declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
A former defense and interior minister, Sheikh Nawaf is a low-profile figure who rarely speaks at length in public. The palace did not respond to requests for an interview with him or his senior advisers.
His discreet style could mean that he would be receptive to modest opposition demands, analysts and diplomats said. For this he will need to satisfy groups within the ruling family.
“Some in the ruling family have these old ideas stuck in their minds. Sheikh Nawaf is cautious but he could adapt to change,” a Kuwaiti lawyer and political commentator said.
Such changes could include allowing some top cabinet posts to be held by people outside of the Al-Sabah family, or giving the opposition the chance to question senior ministers in parliament without the threat of dissolution.
“He insists on meeting with different people. He is willing to listen to people he does not agree with,” the editor said.
The opposition, which won a majority of seats at the last parliamentary elections in February, needs to play its part by unifying and drafting viable, forward-looking policies rather than simply criticizing the government, according to one diplomat.
“The 2012 parliament did nothing, the only thing it did was to block the Development Plan,” the diplomat said, referring to the country’s 30 billion dinar ($108 billion) plan aimed at drawing in foreign investment and diversifying the economy.
In regular demonstrations involving thousands of Kuwaitis since late last year, opposition lawmakers have called for the prime minister and the government to be drawn from the elected parliament rather than the ruling family.
Some activists and columnists have also said there should be the right to form political parties, which are banned. At the moment parliamentarians form blocs based on policy or on family ties.
An important decision Sheikh Nawaf will have to make early on is who will be the next crown prince. The choice requires parliamentary approval.
Diplomats say he is unlikely to appoint a Salem, whose power has eroded over the past six years.
Deputy Chief of the National Guard, Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, is a potential candidate. Other senior family members waiting in the wings include former Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah and former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah.
Appointing a member of the younger generation would be a positive move but it runs against the grain of traditional Kuwaiti society, diplomats said.
“They are not surrounding themselves with young people. But if they do not, they risk going down the Saudi path (of aging leaders),” the diplomat said.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall