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Kuwaitis await new crown prince as Arab leaders mourn late emir

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Arab leaders headed to Kuwait on Thursday to offer condolences for the death of its ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, who worked to unify a polarised region, as Kuwaitis waited for the new emir to name a crown prince to help guide state affairs.

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Jordan’s king, the presidents of Egypt and former occupier Iraq, and Oman’s sultan were among those paying respects to Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the brother and successor of Sheikh Sabah, who died on Tuesday aged 91.

Gulf power Saudi Arabia, with which Kuwait has its closest but most complex relationship, was represented by Mansour bin Mutib, an adviser to King Salman, who had surgery in July and whose son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is de facto ruler.

Bahrain, who joined Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in boycotting neighbouring Qatar in a row that Sheikh Sabah tried in vain to end, sent its crown prince.

Qatar’s emir was the only Gulf ruler to attend Wednesday’s funeral rites for Sheikh Sabah, who was admired around the world for his humanitarian efforts and pursuit of moderation and balance in a region mired in conflict.

Sheikh Nawaf, who lacks his brother’s diplomatic heft, is likely to uphold U.S.-allied Kuwait’s foreign policy but may struggle to navigate between a new generation of Sunni Muslim Gulf leaders who have taken a more hawkish approach, especially against Shi’ite rival Iran, with which Kuwait maintained ties.

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NEW CROWN PRINCE

The focus now for the low-profile Sheikh Nawaf will be naming a crown prince at a time when low oil prices and COVID-19 have hit the finances of the OPEC member state, which has a cradle-to-grave welfare system.

“He is the world’s oldest crown prince at 83 so it is uncertain how long his reign will last and makes it crucial whom he will appoint as (the next) crown prince,” said Courtney Freer, fellow researcher at LSE Middle East.

Under the constitution, the emir has up to a year to name an heir but analysts expect a decision in the coming weeks as dozens of senior al-Sabah dynasty members jostle for position. Parliament must approve the choice.

“The choice of crown prince will indicate the emir’s ability to control differences within the family...and clarify to the people whether there will be a continued smooth transition of power,” said Haitham Abu Hossein, a small business owner.

Among the mooted candidates are the late emir’s eldest son Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad, 72; his nephew Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad, 79; and his brother Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber.

Kuwaiti sources and a diplomat told Reuters this week that Meshal, deputy chief of the National Guard, appears most likely to get the role that traditionally manages the government’s often difficult relationship with the parliament.

Last year, business-minded Sheikh Nasser Sabah, who lost his job as defence minister in late 2019 amid ruling family infighting over alleged government corruption, was seen as front runner and the sources said he remains a strong contender.

Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Dahlia Nehme and Alexander Cornwell; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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