KUWAIT CITY (AP) â€” Kuwaitis watched for signals Monday of who would be named the next crown prince, heir to their ailing new emir, Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, while most of the country shut down to mourn the death of the country’s ruler for the past 27 years.
Nearly all shops and businesses were closed, and traffic was unusually light in the city as thousands of citizens stood in line at Bayan Palace to pay their respects a day after the death of 79-year-old Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah.
Mourners were received by the prime minister, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, a half brother of Sheikh Jaber, and other members of the royal family. Some kissed Sheikh Sabah’s forehead and the tip of his nose in a gesture of love and respect. State television broadcast the reception live.
Sheikh Jaber was buried Sunday afternoon in an unmarked grave in Sulaibikat public cemetery at a ceremony attended by thousands of citizens.
Sheikh Saad promptly assumed the throne and attended the funeral in a wheelchair. While the transition was smooth, Kuwaitis have long worried about the health of the late emir, who suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2001, and Sheikh Saad, who suffers from a colon condition. Last year, there was talk that Sheikh Saad might step down as crown prince because of his poor health. “What we care about as a people is stability according to the law and the constitution,” said Abdullah Sahar, a political science teacher at Kuwait University on Monday. “We can live with anything else that is temporary.” Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah, who has been de facto leader for several years, is the top contender for crown prince.
Born in 1929, Sheikh Sabah is of the same generation as the late and new emirs, but he is regarded as more liberal and is known to want to reduce the state domination of Kuwait’s oil-based economy.
The new emir is expected to leave the prime minister in charge of day-to-day government, and no changes if foreign policy are foreseen.
The head of political science at Kuwait University, Abdul-Rhida Asiri, has said the prime minister will remain the “de facto ruler” for now, and the royal family could make leadership decisions after the 40-day period of mourning. The Al Sabah family has ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years, and enjoys respect. Sheikh Jaber, who had ruled since December 1977, was considered a father figure and a quiet listener who avoided ostentation. His palace near the sea was described as a spacious but ordinary house, and he often dined on bread and yogurt.
He had to flee Kuwait in August 1990 when Iraqi forces under President Saddam Hussein invaded the country. A US-led coalition drove out the Iraqis seven months later and restored him to power. He was one of the few Arab rulers who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam in 2003.
Sheikh Jaber dissolved parliament in 1986 for criticising the government. He did not restore it until 1992, the year after Iraqi troops were driven out. He dissolved the legislature again in 1999, accusing its members of misusing their constitutional rights, but he allowed new elections two months later.
Human rights activists praised him in 1999 when he decreed that women should have the right to vote and run for office. However, conservative legislators repeatedly blocked the move until last May, when the 50-seat parliament finally approved the legislation.
Kuwaitis credit Sheikh Jaber with setting up the Fund for Future Generations, a financial safety net from oil revenues that is intended for the day when the resource is gone. Its value is estimated at more than $60 billion. He suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2001 and was treated in London. In rare public appearances afterward, he spoke with difficulty. The new emir, Sheikh Saad, has not spoken in public in recent years either.