Who is Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the new Emir of Kuwait?

By Amélie Mouton
Posted on Monday, 19 October 2020 12:03

Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah on the day he was sworn in at the National Assembly on 30 September 2020
Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah on the day he was sworn in at the National Assembly on 30 September 2020. © Jaber Abdulkhaleg/AP/SIPA

The new Emir of Kuwait does not have the charisma of his predecessor but hopes to continue to make his country a leading force in the region.

Nawaf al-Sabah became the emir of Kuwait on the 29th September, following the death of his half-brother, Sabah al-Sabah, who dominated the country’s politics for decades.

According to observers of the small petro-monarchy, the new emir is likely to be less hands on than his predecessor in the conduct of state affairs.

READ MORE Leaked conversation: Libya’s Gaddafi sought to replace Saudi Arabia’s ruling family

The new emir is described as a modest and reserved man. A video doing the rounds on social media shows him coming out of a mosque without bodyguards and driving an unpretentious car.

Several times Minister

Prior to his inauguration, he held several government positions. In particular, he was Minister of Defence in 1990 at the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

READ MORE Saudi Arabia: the inner circle of Mohammed Bin Salman

He was also Minister of the Interior and Deputy Commander of the National Guard as well as being appointed Crown Prince in 2006.

Difficult to place

He is the first emir who has never been Prime Minister.

READ MORE Qatar-Saudi Arabia: a diplomatic battle being fought in East Africa

His policies and method of governance therefore remain a mystery, whereas his predecessor was known for his pan-Arabism and his talents as a mediator.

Fast pace

The new Emir has already broken a record: the fastest appointment of a Crown Prince. He appointed his half-brother, Sheikh Mishal Al-Sabah, after only eight days on the throne.

He had a year to do so. A way of cutting short the intrigue surrounding a divided royal family.

READ MORE G5 Sahel: Why are millions of dollars pledged by Saudi Arabia being withheld?

Sheikh Mishal has served as Deputy Commander of the National Guard and Minister of the Interior. According to Cinzia Bianco, a Gulf specialist at the European Council for International Relations, he has a complicated relationship with the Muslim brotherhood. It is said that he is quite close to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


The choice of Sheikh Mishal, 81, by the Emir, who is himself 83, betrays Kuwait’s difficulty in passing the torch to the new generation. It creates a contrast with several countries in the region, who have seen their leadership rejuvenated in recent years.

READ MORE Not even coronavirus stops Saudis from deporting Ethiopians

Still independent?

The Emir will have the difficult task of perpetuating the legacy of Sheikh Sabah who, in an unstable regional environment, had been able to maintain balance and independent diplomacy.

Many people believe that Kuwait will continue to be a moderating regional force, Kuwaiti public opinion being favourable to this attitude.

Economic and political challenges

The Emir will have to cope will falling oil prices and the pandemic, which aggravated the country’s fiscal problems. A few weeks ago the Moody’s agency even downgraded Kuwait’s rating, something unheard of previously.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options