Kuwait’s new emir takes oath of office

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah took the oath of office Sunday, becoming the first emir of this oil-rich US ally to ascend to power on the approval of parliament rather than merely the internal decision of the ruling family.
The emir, 76, swore to uphold the constitution and protect the interests of Kuwaitis, shortly after parliament voted unanimously to confirm him as new leader. The ceremonies ended a leadership struggle within Al Sabah family that had assumed crisis proportions after Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah died January 15, leaving an ailing crown prince as his successor.

“Hopes, aspirations and challenges are big, and our world is swarming with developments and changes,” Sheikh Sabah said in his first address as ruler, warning that Kuwait cannot avoid being affected by the tensions and instability in the region.

Cooperation between the legislature and the Cabinet was a must to achieve “change and reform,” he said, urging national unity in the interest of the country.

Some 700 dignitaries and ambassadors attended the session.

When Sheikh Sabah entered the chamber to take the oath of office, he was met by a roaring standing ovation.

Reading from a paper, he said: “I swear by Almighty God to respect the constitution and the laws of the state, to defend the liberties, interests and properties of the people and to safeguard the independence and territorial integrity of the country.”

During speeches before the vote, lawmakers lavished praise on the new leader and called on him to take steps towards economic and political reforms. Privatisation of the economy — which is largely dependent on oil revenues — is top among these reforms and the battle for them is not expected to be easy.

The 50-seat house has objected to introducing income taxes and has held up a project that would open the country’s northern oil fields to international investors. Despite government’s assurances, lawmakers want to insure the plan would not put the country’s only resource in foreign hands.

Legislator Mohammed Al Saqr called on the new ruler to appoint an heir-apparent quickly to prevent a repeat of the unprecedented succession crisis. Sheikh Sabah has up to one year to choose one.

“What is needed is the appointment of a crown prince before appointing a prime minister,” he told the house chamber. Until, 2003, the crown prince and the prime minister positions were held by one man. They were separated years after Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah fell ill with colon bleeding.

On Tuesday, the legislature — for the first time — invoked the 1964 succession law and removed Sheikh Saad from power nine days after he took over. The house heard medical testimony that he was unable to carry out his duties, and temporarily gave his duties to the Cabinet that named Sheikh Sabah for the top job the same day.

The ruling family disagreed about Sheikh Saad abdicating in favour of Sheikh Sabah, but managed to bridge its differences Monday night. Sheikh Saad sent a letter of abdication to the house, but it arrived moments before the historic anonymous vote to remove him.

Saad Ben Tafla Al Ajmi, a former information minister, told the Associated Press: “The way Sheikh Sabah became ruler was exceptional, and therefore I expect him to enhance constitutional establishments and popular participation.” Legalising political parties and cutting the number of precincts would be among the reforms he hoped for, he said.

Kuwait has no government-sanctioned political parties, and its 25 small precincts allow for election bribery and vote-buying, analysts say.

The Cabinet, now headed by the deputy prime minister, Sheikh Nawwaf Al Ahmed Al Sabah, is expected to resign so that a new one could be formed.

American Ambassador Richard LeBaron said in a statement Sunday the leadership transition was a “testament to the power” of law and “Kuwait has been a model for the development of democracy in the region.” Kuwait’s strong alliance with the United States will not be affected by the change of leadership. It is cemented by a defence pact signed after the 1991 US-led Gulf War that liberated this small oil-rich state from a seven-month Iraqi occupation.

The country was the launch pad for the 2003 war in Iraq that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Khaled Al Adwa, one of two lawmakers who expressed themselves in verse during Sunday’s session, promised the ruling family that Kuwaitis will support it “as long as night continues to embrace day.”

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