Kuwait could be heading towards a period of uncertainty with questions regarding the health of the country’s emir and his designated successor at a time when the Gulf state is embroiled in sharpening political disputes.
Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, 88, was discharged from a hospital in late November after undergoing “regular medical” tests, Kuwait’s state news agency (KUNA) reported, one day after he was admitted following a cold.
Sheikh Sabah has been leading mediation efforts to heal a rift between some Arab countries, including regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Qatar over allegations that Doha supports terrorism, a charge Qatar denies.
Born in Kuwait on June 16, 1929, Sheikh Sabah is known as the “dean of Arab diplomacy” for his work as foreign minister to restore relations with Arab countries that backed Baghdad during the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Kuwait was occupied by Iraqi forces.
He was nominated ruler of Kuwait in 2006, after Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah died and his successor, Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, was appointed only to be unanimously voted out of office by parliament due to illness.
Sheikh Sabah had a pacemaker installed in 1999.
There are also concerns regarding the health of Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al- Sabah. In August, Sheikh Nawaf underwent “successful medical check-ups” in the United States and returned to Kuwait, a cabinet statement said at the time. The statement gave no details on the tests.
Sheikh Nawaf, 80, a brother of Sheikh Sabah, had minor back surgery in 2013 in Germany. A relatively low-profile figure, he was installed as next in line to lead Kuwait in 2006, shortly after Sheikh Sabah became emir.
The health of leading members of the ruling family is a sensitive issue in Kuwait, where less senior al- Sabahs have long been jostling for position, diplomats and analysts said. It is not clear who is third in line in Kuwait, an OPEC member.
Speculation over the physical fitness of the emir and his crown prince came during heightened political tensions in Kuwait. A leading opposition figure, three serving lawmakers and dozens of others in Kuwait have been sentenced to prison over protests in 2011 during which parliament was stormed.
The decision by Kuwait’s appeals court shocked the tiny oil-rich country, especially as a lower court had acquitted the 70-odd defendants named in the 2013 case.
“I think a lot of Kuwaitis will be concerned that this will just feed into instability and any future leadership crisis as well,” Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told the Associated Press.
“That question will be raised now whether… unity can be achieved at a time [when] we have the jailing of a large number of opposition and youth activists,” Diwan said.
Court documents reviewed by the Associated Press suggested that Musallam al-Barrak, a main opposition leader who left prison in April after serving a 2-year sentence, received the harshest sentence.
Barrak was sentenced to nine years in prison in the November 27 court ruling. More than 50 other defendants were given sentences ranging from one to five years. Others had their acquittals upheld.
The protesters briefly entered the parliament chamber in November 2011 amid attempts by opposition lawmakers to bring in the prime minister for questioning over claims that government officials transferred state funds to accounts outside the country.
It is unclear what sparked the appeals court’s decision, though prosecutors apparently appealed the acquittals. Kuwait’s opposition, while vocal, has not called for an end of the country’s hereditary rule.
Barrak was released in April after serving two years in prison following a conviction for insulting the country’s ruling emir. Since his release, Barrak had been largely absent from the country’s political scene.
A number of those sentenced indicated they will appeal the convictions to the supreme court.
While Kuwait allows more freedom of speech than some other Gulf Arab countries, the emir has the final say in state affairs.
There have been a series of political trials and authorities have revoked citizenship of some Kuwaitis in the past several years, moves that have drawn rebuke abroad and anger at home.
Kuwait’s parliament has been dissolved seven times since 2006 due to feuds between the government and opposition.
The government replaced its oil, finance and defence ministers in a cabinet reshuffle December 11. Bakheet al-Rashidi was appointed oil minister and Nayef Falah al- Hajraf was named finance minister. Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, son of the emir, was appointed defence minister.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.