The battle for the Kuwaiti Emiracy: Chapter Two
Two senior members of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, representing historically divergent branches of the House of Al-Sabah whose history is awash with bloodshed and internecine family rivalry, are at war over succession to the Kuwaiti Emiracy. The top position in Kuwait will become vacant once the current ailing Emir, Sabah Al-Sabah (aged 90), dies. He was treated in a US hospital for an extended period last summer, suspected to have cancer. The subject matter of the war between his heirs apparent are some videos ostensibly showing corrupt activities, due to see the light of day in a trial in a Geneva courtroom due for early November 2020. But what do these videos really show, and what is this dispute about? And why is a Geneva court hearing this dispute at all?
A small country awash with oil revenues, run by a single sprawling family and reliant for the most part upon expatriate workers, Kuwait is nevertheless distinctive from a number of its Gulf neighbours by reason of its pivotal role in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Kuwait has proportions of both Shia and Sunni Muslims amongst its population, as does its neighbour Iraq of whom Kuwait was once part until a deal with the British Navy to secure Kuwait's protection was sealed in 1899. The ruling family has cultivated relations with both the Sunni bloc of Middle Eastern countries led by Saudi Arabia, and with the Shia interests in the region led by Iran. Kuwait thereby enjoys cordial relations with all of its neighbours, for as long as the country lives under the umbrella of what is now US protection, after the US-led liberation of Kuwait in the First Gulf War (1990-91). Kuwait is a key mediator and force for stability in the often fractious Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as in OPEC.
Nevertheless the country is riven with its own internal divisions, riven by its own process of quasi-democratisation that emerged after liberation in the course of the First Gulf War. The ruling Royal Family's ad hoc division of power between its two principal branches was undermined by the representative impulses created by moving the Kuwaiti National Assembly from an appointed to an elected body, a condition the United States imposed as part of its liberation package. The new system of elections to the parliament inevitably favoured one branch of the family over the other. The Al-Salem branch had developed closer relations with Kuwait's minority and progressive groups as, over the prior decades, it had lost ascendency to the competing and predominantly Al-Jaber branch. Therefore an elective parliament, that would increase representation for minority and progressive groups, would strengthen the Al-Salem branch with which the United States, via Swiss diplomacy, had been strengthening relations throughout the 1980's as part of the American programme to undermine the then newly-formed Islamic Republic of Iran.
The change in the constitutional structure of Kuwait after 1991, of which quasi-democratisation of the parliament was only one aspect, engendered an increasingly bitter power struggle between the two branches of the family, one of which was seen as pro-American and the other of which was more pro-Iranian and supported conservative elements throughout the Middle East. These events reached an initial dénouement when the Al-Jaber Emir died in 2006; after some intrigue, the Al-Salem Crown Prince abdicated on health grounds and died shortly afterwards. The new Emir, who rules until this day, was a member of the Al-Jaber branch. At the same time the new Prime Minister was also a member of the Al-Jaber branch: Sheikh Nasser. Thus by 2006 a constitutional coup had been achieved by the Al-Jaber branch against the Al-Salem branch. The Al-Jaber branch of the Al-Sabah family thereafter dominated ministerial appointments.
Nevertheless Kuwaiti politics within the Al-Sabah family became an internal Kuwaiti civil war without the violence (for the most part). The government of Sheikh Nasser faced constant opposition from the Kuwaiti parliament, and Sheikh Nasser himself became mired in allegations of corruption and improper proximity to the government in Tehran of the militarist Iranian leader President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Amidst the political upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring, Sheikh Nasser ultimately resigned in 2011, in terms described by the BBC as follows:
"Kuwait's prime minister has resigned along with his government, following a growing row with his parliamentary opponents about alleged corruption. Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah had been under pressure over allegations that 15 MPs were paid bribes to support the government. Opposition lawmakers and protesters stormed parliament earlier this month to demand his resignation."
Notwithstanding, the Emir replaced Sheikh Nasser with another Al-Jaber loyalist as Prime Minister, further infuriating the Al-Salem family members and their supporters in the opposition and minorities. Sheikh Nasser remained the predominant power behind the thrown. In 2013, videos emerged of Sheikh Nasser apparently having a conversation with his Geneva bankers. The videos affair, as it became known, was notorious across Kuwait. It was discussed by everyone, news, updates and information being circulated throughout Kuwait's small population through the use of social media in the absence of a substantially free Kuwaiti press. Sheikh Nasser's Al-Jaber successor as Kuwaiti Prime Minister managed over a perpetually unstable government, as the internecine warfare between what by now represented the Al-Jaber establihment and the Al-Salem insurgents and their parliamentary followers was bitterly fought out in virtually every corridor of power.
The two sides turned to lawyers. The Al-Salem branch, represented by Sheikh Ahmed as its head who had been deprived of ministerial office by Sheikh Nasser, his half-cousin, and relegated in his activities to the field of sports and in particular his dominant roles in the International Olympic Committee and in FIFA as a principal financier and vote-gatherer in the one-member one vote clubs, hired legal advisors and international Anglo-Saxon experts to verify the veracity of the videos. There were demonstrations in the streets. Al-Watan, a respected Kuwaiti newspaper sympathetic to the Al-Salem cause, was shut down. In March 2015 the Emir, and that point 85, stepped in decisively in favour of his branch of the family, the Al-Jaber group. Sheikh Ahmed appeared on Kuwaiti national television apologising profusely for his role in the videos affair, speaking hurriedly from a script while, it was reported, security forces stood off camera ensuring he said the right thing. Sheikh Ahmed then disappeared from public life, and a number of his supporters were either prosecuted or disappeared into exile. Nevertheless the results of the international expertise that analysed the videos stuck in the minds of the pubic. Sheikh Nasser's already sullied reputation had taken a further hit.
Sheikh Nasser then filed a criminal complaint with a Geneva Prosecutor. To make his point, it was reported by the Swiss national public broadcaster, he made a US$1 million facilitation payment to the university where the prosecutor works. What followed was the largest prosecutorial investigation in the history of Geneva (and indeed possibly all Switzerland), spanning some five years, into whether the videos had been forged. The Geneva Prosecutor, suitably incentivised, left no stone unturned in pursuing a wide-ranging investigation the goal of which was to vindicate Sheikh Nasser and to conclude that the videos revealing his apparent misconduct were in fact fakes.
The Prosecutor took every effort to threaten and extract confessions or statements of regret from all those involved, even threatening Sheikh Ahmed and those around him with prison. He fired off a series of international arrest warrants that resulted in diplomatic scandal. And then, in June 2018, an extraordinarily revelation emerged in the course of these proceedings: there were two sets of videos in circulation.