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The battle for the Kuwaiti Emiracy: Chapter One

This autumn, in a bizarre Geneva court procedure, an extraordinary legal and political circus will play out that determines who becomes the next Emir of Kuwait once the current ailing Emir, Sabah Al-Sabah, aged 90 and treated in a US hospital last year for cancer, finally succumbs to old age. The process of selecting the new Emir, which revolves around allegations and counter-allegations of egregious corruption in the oil rich micro state, will be decided by a tribunal of three Geneva Judges. This procedure promises to be Byzantine in the extreme, and can bear no relationship to the wishes of the Kuwaiti people.


In any event the next Emir will be a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, the House of Al-Sabah, that has ruled Kuwait since 1752. In this first essay we provide an initial primer of the issues involved in the dispute about to play out in Geneva, and in due course we will offer the reader the opportunity to vote: who do they think the next Emir should be? Perhaps through the internet we can introduce an element of democracy to one of the most politically opaque countries in the Middle East.

To understand the dispute currently underway, between Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah (top) and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah (bottom), we must understand that the Kuwaiti Royal Family, believed to number several hundred members although no reliable figures exist, is effectively divided into two branches: the Al-Jaber branch (of which Sheikh Nasser is a member) and the Al-Salem branch (of which Sheikh Ahmed is a member).


Both branches are descendants of Emir Mubarak the Great (1896 - 1915). Mubarak came to power by killing his half-brother; he signed an agreement with the United Kingdom providing for British suzerainty over Kuwait in exchange for naval protection in 1899, thereby securing Kuwait's status as a territory safe from the territorial attentions of its neighbours. Mubarak had two sons that became Emirs of Kuwait, Jaber and Salim, and this is the origin of the two branches of the ruling family.


Since Mubarak the Great, the Emir of Kuwait, a hereditary monarchy whose Emir occupies the pinnacle of a pyramid of power in which control of Kuwait's natural resources (predominantly oil) is divided between various members of the Al-Sabah Royal Family, has alternated between the Al-Jaber and Al-Salem branches of the family in a delicate balance of power. The current most senior descendants of these two branches of the family are Sheikh Nasser and Sheikh Ahmed respectively. The current Emir, Sabah Al-Sabah, is a member of the Al-Jaber branch of the family.


So, according to the foregoing logic, it is time for an Al-Salem monarch. Nevertheless Sheikh Nasser and Sheikh Ahmed are feuding for the title, and they have been doing so for most of the second decade of the twentieth century, as the elderly Emir's health has steadily deteriorated; he is currently 90 years old. The two men's feud has persisted at least since Sheikh Nasser was removed as Prime Minister upon accusations of gross corruption in 2011. Why is this feud taking place, and why is it not accepted that in line with convention the next Emir should be a member of the Al-Salem branch of the Kuwaiti Royal Family?


The answer to this question goes back to the First Gulf War of 1990 to 1991, in which a US-led coalition evicted Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait. These events effectively broke the convention of rotating between the two branches of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. The Emir at the time of the invasion, Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, was a member of the Al-Jaber branch and he had been Emir throughout the rise of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Iraq war, tacitly supporting the Iranians against Iraqi aggression although, as many countries did, playing both sides. Saddam Hussein never forgave him, and used as a pretext Kuwait's refusal to cancel loans from Kuwait to Iraq to fund the war, as well as Ottoman-era territorial claims over the territory stymied by the Anglo-Kuwaiti suzerainty pact of 1899, as pretexts for his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.


The Americans were sceptical of the Kuwaiti Emir's allegiances, and unimpressed with the close relationship between Kuwait and Iran. The head of the Al-Salem branch of the family at the time of the invasion, the father of Sheikh Ahmed (the second person pictured above), became a war hero for his personal resistance to the Iraqi invasion of the Emir's palace as a result of which he was killed by the Iraqis and run over by an Iraqi tank.


Because Sheikh Nasser had been the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Tehran in the 1980's, and had been responsible for channeling Kuwait's tacit financial and other support for Iran in the Iran / Iraq war, the US liberators of Kuwait, implacably hostile to the Islamic regime in Tehran after the Iran hostage crisis in which Ayatollah Khomeini's regime held US embassy staff hostage for 444 days from 1979 to 1981, looked adversely upon the Al-Jaber branch of the Kuwaiti Royal Family that Sheikh Nasser represented and continues to represent. Sheikh Nasser, personal friends with some of the leaders of the Islamic Revolution in Iran including the current Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini (Khomeini's successor), was an anathema to them. Accordingly close relations were developed with Nasser's opponents in the Al-Salem branch of the Royal Family, in particular Sheikh Ahmed's father until his demise at the hands of Iraqi invading forces in the grounds of the Emir's Palace in Kuwait. These connections were perpetuated principally through the medium of Swiss intelligence, and one Swiss intelligence agent in particular.


As a price for liberation, the United States insisted upon importing the rudiments of a democracy into Kuwait. The Kuwaiti National Assembly would thereafter be elected rather than appointed by the Emir and those close to him, and while this process of immediate democratisation was imperfect it extended representation of hitherto under-represented elements of Kuwaiti society, including those less conservative groups not traditionally so close to the by then dominant Al-Jaber branch of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Therefore the more conservative Al-Jaber branch was undermined by the US-mandated democratising reforms, in favour of the more populist, and less conservative, Al-Salem branch represented after the end of the Gulf War by Sheikh Ahmed.


But this effort to change the balance of power in Kuwait was resisted by the Al-Jaber branch, and by Sheikh Nasser in particular. Upon the death of the Emir in 2006, the Al-Salem Crown Prince, nominated by the Kuwaiti Parliament to succeed the Emir as ruler-for-life, became ill and abdicated in mysterious and murky circumstances. A compromise candidate for Emir, the genial but elderly Al-Jaber family member Sabah Al-Sabah, was installed. Sheikh Nasser was appointed as Prime Minister in 2006, but his government was notoriously corrupt and he ended up resigning amidst a flood of corruption allegations in 2011. Since then the Emir has appointed various governments leaning in the direction of the Al-Jaber branch of the Al-Sabah family, but none of them have been particularly viable, because they have been unable to rule with the extended acquiescence of the quasi-democratic Kuwaiti Parliament, more inclined to align itself with the Al-Salem branch of the family.


Kuwait does not have a free media. As early as 2013, a series of videos emerged apparently showing corruption and/or money laundering and/or wrongdoing on the part of Sheikh Nasser. Discussion of these videos was circulated using social media, to an extent under the radar of the official censors; but the political debate about the propriety of Sheikh Nasser and his financial and/or political transactions inflamed Kuwaiti political society and popular opinion. Sheikh Ahmed was perceived as spearheading the spread of information adverse to Sheikh Nasser associated with these videos and the related social media campaign, until in early 2015 it appears that the Emir stepped in decisively with a view to ending the dispute between the two men. Al-Watan, an Al-Salem leaning Kuwaiti newspaper, was shuttered by the authorities. Various domestic prosecutions of dubious fairness ensued.


In March 2015 Sheikh Ahmed appeared on Kuwaiti national television, hastily reading a pre-scripted apology to the Emir about the videos saga. Sheikh Ahmed then disappeared from view. At that point, Sheikh Nasser initiated legal proceedings in Geneva to challenge the veracity of the videos Sheikh Ahmed had previously stood behind, presumably with the goal of burying his political opponent. Critics of Sheikh Nasser observe that the reason Nasser chose Geneva as a venue to attack his arch-rival in Kuwaiti politics is because he has so much money in Geneva banks (at the very least, many tens of billions of US dollars) that he could use his financial leverage to direct the Geneva legal system to his whims. An accusation has been made in a Swiss publicly owned media source that Sheikh Nasser made a corrupt payment of US$1 million to secure the opening of an inappropriate legal investigation.


The legal proceedings initiated by Sheikh Nasser have continued for several years, and are now reaching a dénouement in a trial to be held in November 2020 in a Geneva courtroom. This must stand as one of the most bizarre methods on record of deciding upon the principles of succession within a hereditary middle eastern royal family. One cannot help wondering what on earth the learned people of the Geneva legal system thought they were doing in agreeing to hear such a case. Surely this represents a triumph of improper financial and political influence over good sense in the management of a legal system. Questions of hereditary succession in the Middle East cannot realistically be resolved by the legal system of a small canton in one of Europe's smaller countries. The very idea is absurd, and it must serve as an example of gross failure of judgment on the part of all the people pursuing it.


There is a chronic history of egregious political corruption in Kuwait, fuelled by the small nation's vast hydrocarbon incomes. Accordingly there remains a lingering concern that a small rich Middle Eastern nation with an unstable body politic and standards of rule of law infected with unaccountable money has used its financial muscle to pervert the legal system of the city of Geneva. Geneva's reputation as a centre for the rule of law will surely be much damaged as a result.


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