The battle for the Kuwaiti Emiracy: Chapter Three
Upon the death of the Kuwaiti Emir in 2006, a Crown Prince installed by the US-back quasi-democratic Kuwaiti National Assembly was supposed to ascend to the throne pursuant to an understanding, dating back to the early twentieth century, that the Crown would alternate between the Al-Jaber and Al-Salem branches of the Al-Sabah Kuwaiti Royal Family. But the Al-Salem Crown Prince, elderly and ailing, found himself deposed within just weeks by the aggressively conservative Al-Jaber branch. He was replaced by the genial yet elderly Sabah Al-Sabah, an Al-Jaber, then 76 and still in office but himself ailing, aged 90, in 2020. This palace coup had been engineered by Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, who become a ruthlessly pro-Jaber Prime Minister under the new Emir.
Allegations subsequently emerged that Nasser had bought members of the Kuwaiti parliament, leading to his resignation amidst the Arab Spring protests in 2011. This was just the beginning of a decade-long struggle between Nasser and the principal leader of the Al-Salem branch of the family, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Sabah, that has resulted in grievous recurrent political instability presided over precariously by the ever-ageing Emir as rumours circulated about his health. The locus of the dispute between the two Sheikhs, in their combat for the throne and the dominancy of their branch of the family, was a set of videos apparently showing Nasser doing something wrong in his Geneva mansion. But what exactly did those videos show? And were they genuine?
After the end of the term of office of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2013, the connections of Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah with Iran, the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980's who had subsequently risen to the heights of Kuwaiti Prime Minister from 2006 to 2011, fell into sharp focus in the West and in Kuwait alike. Because Kuwait's media is recognised internationally to be far from free, political dissent, as with many Middle Eastern countries, has been aired in large part using social media. A series of videos emerged apparently showing wrongdoing on the part of Sheikh Nasser, circulated via chat application user groups and other social media tools. For a Gulf Arab country, this was an extraordinary affair: videos showing a senior member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, and until 2011 the heir apparent to the Emiracy, were being circulated amongst the Kuwaiti population. Even more astonishing was that Sheikh Ahmed, the Prime Minister's half cousin and rival for power within the ruling Royal family was making statements to the effect that the matter ought to be investigated. In other words, he was associating himself with the videos affair.
Rivalries and power contests within the Kuwaiti Royal Family are hardly new. But until 2013, they had always taken place in private, outside the glare of the public media. The Arab Spring, a series of social media driven revolutions in the Middle East, had changed all that. Now the Kuwaiti population sat transfixed as they absorbed a daily diet of allegation, rebuttal and counter-allegation about money laundering, corruption, attempts at a coup d'état and other extraordinary affairs of state, levelled against one another by two senior members of the House of Al-Sabah. The Kuwaiti National Assembly seized itself of the issues on a number of occasions; there were street demonstrations, calling for reforms. There were all sorts of descriptions aired across social media of what the videos were supposed to show and whether they were genuine. The nation was engaged in an exercise of political transparency hitherto not seen amidst Gulf monarchies.
Facing the accusation that he was circulating fabricated videos about his half-cousin, Sheikh Ahmed hired lawyers based in Geneva and British police and forensic experts to analyse the videos for their veracity. The conclusion, supported by a substantial amount of forensic evidence, was that they were valid and that they had not been tampered with. Lingering questions existed about how those videos had been obtained. They appeared to be videos of Sheikh Nasser talking with his bankers in his home outside Geneva. They were apparently taken with a pinhole camera or other low-quality camera, and were grainy and hazy. The words that had been spoken were difficult to make out without using forensic sound analysis techniques. Ultimately transcripts of what was said in each video, in a combination of English, French, Arabic and Farsi, were prepared. While the subject of the conversations was unclear and required some deciphering, the impact of expert reports apparently verifying the videos electrified Kuwaiti politics. It seemed that the honesty and credibility of Kuwait's most powerful politician was at stake, because he himself had disputed the veracity of the videos and now evidence existed suggesting he was wrong.
Kuwaiti politics became ever more febrile as the videos affair played itself out in both the national public consciousness and the corridors of official power in the Gulf state. Nasser's successor as Prime Minister had trouble commanding a majority in the Kuwaiti National Assembly, and the country's legislative agenda was stalled. Street demonstrations, unheard of in the politically conservative nation state, complained of rampant corruption amongst the Royal Family and the ruling classes more broadly. Nasser's political influence was in danger, as the message circulated within Kuwaiti political society that the videos apparently incriminating him were in danger. Nevertheless the affair was shrouded in mystery: few people had actually seen the videos, and there was confusion amongst the populace about what they showed.
The first dénouement of the crisis was Ahmed's appearance on Kuwaiti national television in March 2015, in which he hastily read a pre-prepared apology to the Emir for his participation in the videos affair, and undertook never to mention it again. Rumour pronounced that Ahmed read this statement under the most extreme duress, barely being given any time to prepare before he spoke to the nation, and taken to the television studio under force of arms. Ahmed then disappeared from Kuwaiti public life, moving abroad and focusing upon his activities as member of the International Olympic Committee and other activities in the fields of sports lobbying and fundraising. The prominent Kuwaiti daily newspaper, sympathetic to Ahmed and the Kuwaiti opposition more broadly, was shuttered by government decree. Nasser laid a complaint with the Geneva Prosecutor's office, backed by a chunky facilitation payment, asking the prosecutor to investigate who had falsified videos about him.
The procedure that followed became one of the longest and most complex prosecutor's investigations in Geneva legal history, shortly to enter its seventh year before resolution. The prosecutor issued multiple search warrants across Geneva (none of which revealed anything), international arrest warrants and spent unprecedented sums of money - several hundreds of thousands of Swiss Francs - for a matter with no violence and in which nobody he was investigating was accused of stealing money. The affair related only to the honour and dignity of Nasser, a public figure in another country (albeit who controls billions of dollars of assets in Geneva banks). It was the strangest use of Geneva taxpayers' funds for a prosecutor to investigate aspersions upon the dignity of a foreign former public official and contender for the throne of a Gulf monarchy.
Although the Prosecutor achieved little to nothing in his wide-ranging investigation and seizure of Geneva evidence, the Kuwaiti Prosecutor's Office was more than helpful. One of the Geneva Prosecutor's extradition requests reflected remarkably well the text of an extradition request from the Kuwaiti Prosecutor's Office: in other words, the Geneva Prosecutor's Office was copying the work of the Kuwaiti Prosecutor's Office, or vice versa. The aggressive young prosecutor assigned to the case was Stéphane Grodecki, whose former boss was a Geneva lawyer named Charles Poncet who worked for Libya's Kadhaffi family. Grodecki overstretched himself, and widely gave the impression of doing the unquestioning bidding of the Kuwaiti authorities who in turn acted upon the instance of Sheikh Nasser. The fact that Grodecki was a Professor at the University of Geneva, the institution to which Nasser had mad the US$1 million facilitation payment, further helped muddy the waters and provide a pervasive impression of murk and sleaze permeating the Geneva procedure.
At Grodecki's request, the Kuwaiti Prosecutor's Office provided him with copies of videos with glaring subtitles in Arabic, purporting to show Nasser and others discussing a coup d'état. But these videos were not the same as those the English police and forensic experts had analysed, which had no subtitles and gave no hint of Nasser discussing a coup d'état. Grodecki then commissioned Swiss experts to assess the veracity of the second set of videos, to try to reach conclusions favourable to Nasser - Nasser desperately needed a conclusion of forgery in order to re-credit his political reputation in Kuwait.
The fact that the videos were different from those damning Nasser, previously assessed as legitimate by the English experts, was obvious to anyone familiar with the Prosecutor's file but Grodecki nonetheless overlooked it. Intriguingly, the Swiss experts did not find that even the second set of videos were definitely forged. Their conclusions were ambiguous; they were unable to determine whether the videos they examined at Mr Grodecki's request were genuine or not. And all the time these were the wrong sets of videos that the Swiss experts were looking at. The reason why the English and the Swiss experts had reached different forensic conclusions about the videos was that in each case they were looking at different sets of videos.
In late 2018, Grodecki ultimately indicted Ahmed and his various lawyers for forgery, without any more senior official in the Geneva judicial system approving, authorising or supervising the indictment that was obviously faulty. It was faulty because there was no evidence that any videos had actually been forged; and the wrong videos had been looked at when making the enquiry.
Grodecki continued to persecute the lawyers involved, with miscellaneous other prosecutions and lawsuits, seeking to obtain their confessions. His habits bordered upon the tyrannical. He lost his post at the University of Geneva as a result of the revelations about his financial proximity with Sheikh Nasser, and he began acting ever more rashly and without reason as, having dug himself short-sightedly into an ugly Kuwaiti political hole, he struggled blindly to get out. As he was fighting for his political life, the Geneva courts became ever cooler about trying his ugly and misconceived indictment. A five-day trial was ultimately scheduled for November 2020, a clear two years after Grodecki's indictment; but even that date was promptly cancelled and at the time of writing nobody seems to know when the case will ever come to a conclusion. The Geneva courts are well aware that the evidence in this case fails to achieve Nasser's needs. Ahmed is supported by the western powers. The prospect of finding a senior member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family guilty of forgery in the absence of any evidence was perhaps a bit too much for the Geneva courts to swallow.
In the meantime, the reputation of the Geneva legal system and of Geneva as a centre of the rule of law has undoubtedly taken a colossal hit amidst the international legal, political and diplomatic communities. The Genevois are fatigued, and they desperately seek a way out.
Two questions remain. Why are there two sets of videos? Who is responsible for this fraud, in which an attempt to change the conclusions of forensic experts about a set of videos is the product of using a different set of videos? And given the transparent inability of the Geneva legal system to bring this case to a conclusion, what will happen when, eventually, as is ultimately inevitable, the now 90 year old Emir dies and the domestic political chaos generated by the videos affair has not yet been resolved?