Gulf Ruling Families: Stability of Kings and Princes, a Cold War for Successors

While constitutional articles clearly guarantee the affairs of the governance and the succession in both the Kingdom of Bahrain and the State of Qatar, other Gulf Arab states are facing several challenges in the medium and long terms.

In his recent appearance in the middle of last November, the Omani Sultan, Qaboos bin Said (79 years old), seemed to be extremely sick. The Sultan’s medical condition brought back to the fore the list of potential successors to the throne of the Sultanate. Similarly, in Kuwait, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (90 years old), will be succeeded by the Crown Prince, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (82 years old).

Although things seem confusing in Kuwait and the Sultanate of Oman due to the enormous lists of potential candidates aspiring for the seat of governance and the mandate of the throne, the situation in both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is not less complicated.

The ruling families in the Gulf area, and since the independence of the Gulf states, have been seeking to resolve the issue of the strife for “governance” as an internal matter which is only related to the ruling houses and “no one has the right to participate in it … and that the states’ practicing of their powers, regardless whether their practices are democratic and compatible with the spirit of the times or not, is acceptable by these states’ citizens “(Abdel Hadi Khalaf / 2016 AD), however, each rule has its exceptions, and that is what actually happened in more than one Gulf country.

This paper deals with what it considers as “cold war” going on inside the ruling houses in the Arab Gulf states, especially those countries that do not depend, in the arrangement of the ruling house, on the policy of father-to-eldest-son succession which is the case in Bahrain and Qatar. While we have witnessed, in some cases, a smooth transition of governance in some countries, other Gulf countries have witnessed disputes in which cold wars turned into real conflicts, coups, and even bloodshed.

Oman: “Consensus” and the “Sultan’s Paper”

The American scholar Simon Henderson reviewed in his article “The Omani Succession Envelope, Please”(The Washington Institute / 2017 AD) the options of Omanis in case the ruling family cannot agree on a candidate to succeed Sultan Qaboos. In Simon’s own words, which are full of cynicism, he noted that: “the name of the next ruler of Oman is written on a piece of paper in a sealed envelope kept in the royal palace in the capital of Muscat. There is also a second envelope, held in a different royal palace in the southern city of Salalah. Apparently, it contains the same name, in case the first envelope cannot be found.”

What complicates the matters in the Sultanate is that, before resorting to the will of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and within three days, the Al-Busaidi dynasty must agree on the new sultan. Therefore, the sultan’s will is the second option that the family will resort to in case it is unable to agree on the appointment of one of its members to be the country’s sultan. More importantly, no one knows what is meant by “consensus,” what is its mechanism, and in accordance to which voting system does it work? Also, who are those individuals who are supposed to be invited to attend these meetings? Who is entitled to vote from family members? What is the legal age for voting?

According to several readings, the most important of which was that of the British academic Mark Valerie in 2014 AD, the most prominent nominations so far seem to focus on four names. Also, several sources confirm that it is likely that one of them is the heir to the throne in the Sultanate according to the envelope left by Sultan Qaboos in his palace:

First: Asaad bin Tariq bin Taimur Al Said (65 years old)

He is the most fortunate candidate. In March 2017, he announced his appointment as Deputy Prime Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Affairs. Also, he is the first cousin of Sultan Qaboos and the brother of lady Nawal bint Tariq bin Taimur (the ex-wife of the Sultan). He is a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the Special Representative of the Sultan, and he was the commander of the Omani army’s tanks.

Second: Haitham bin Tariq bin Taymour Al Said (65 years old)

He is the former Minister of Heritage and Culture, and he also worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He represented the Sultan on several occasions and was a Special Envoy and a representative on many national, Arab and international events.

Third: Shihab bin Tariq bin Taimur Al Said (63 years)

He is the advisor to Sultan Qaboos and Chairman of the Omani Scientific Research Council. He was the Commander of the Royal Navy of Oman until the year 2004 AD. Besides, he is a well-known businessman.

Fourth: Taimur bin Asaad bin Tariq Al Said (38 years old)

Many Omanis believe that he is a strong candidate for the position, especially if both his father (Asaad) and his uncles (Shihab and Haitham) agree that the Sultanate must have a young, ambitious, and capable Sultan to make a significant change in the country. Officially, he is the Assistant Secretary-General for International Relations at the Omani Research Council. Also, he is married to Mrs. Dhofari bint Mustahil bin Ahmed Al-Maashani (a relative to Sultan Qaboos on his mother’s side).

Kuwait: Cousins’ Disputes

The Kuwaiti constitution stipulates that the appointment of the crown prince must be made through an Emiri order based primarily on the recommendation of the Emir and after the majority of the National Assembly’s members pledge allegiance in a special session. This does not negate the fact that the ruling family has lived on a consensual basis since the year 1915 CE, based on the shift of the emirate’s presidency between the sons of the eighth ruler, Sheikh Jaber bin Mubarak Al-Sabah on the one hand, and their cousins from the ninth ruler Sheikh Salem bin Mubarak Al-Sabah on the other.

This consensus, which has achieved stability within the ruling family, has been plagued by several troubles since 2006. At that time, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah assumed the rule, succeeding Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah (may God have mercy on him) for health reasons. Sheikh Sabah chose to appoint Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (brother of the Emir) as crown prince, which raised many questions among the cousins about whether working according to the “rotation of governance” rule has been overlooked towards a new rule whose features have not been clarified or announced until now.

Today, the debate within Kuwait is mainly about the centralization of governance in the bloodline of Sheikh Jaber bin Mubarak Al-Sabah and the exclusion of the sons of the “Al-Salem dynasty,” first, and the sons of Hamad Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, second. The latter (Hamad Al-Mubarak) is the third brother of the two former princes, Jaber and Salem. This confusion is accompanied by the fact that there are potential candidates for the succession who are Sheikh Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah’s grandchildren, particularly, Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (son of the current prince) and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahd Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, and the latter (Ahmed Al-Sabah) is the well-known sports administrator who clearly states his aspiration to govern.

It seems that it has become imperative for the ruling family in Kuwait to conduct serious discussions and significant consensus on the arrangement of the ruling house. This consensus can be achieved whether by passing a constitutional amendment or adopting an internal organization in the family (such as the Allegiance Commission in Saudi Arabia), which ensures the arrangement of the governance, which shifts between three houses that compete to reach the emirate’s seat.

Today, thoughts in Kuwait are focused on the following candidates:

First: Sheikh Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah (64 years old)

He is the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Sheikh Mohammad is the fourth son of Sheikh Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, the twelfth Emir of the State of Kuwait, and his wife, Sheikha Nuria Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. He gains general acceptance and is the first and permanent candidate of the “Al-Salem dynasty” to rule the emirate.

Second: Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (71 years old)

He is the eldest son of the current Emir, the former defense minister, and the first deputy prime minister in Kuwait (dismissed from office in November 2019). He represents a major popular option and is primarily known as a reformist and a liberal. Taking over the rule by Sheikh Nasser represents a serious challenge to the cohesion of the ruling family at present, but this does not mean that he is excluded, especially if the current crown prince gets the chance to reach power and nominate him for succeeding the Emir.

Third: Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah (77 years old)

He is the most prominent candidate of the sons of Hamad Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah (the branch of the sons of Mubarak Al-Sabah that was excluded from the rule), and his father was the first Minister of Endowments in Kuwait, Sheikh Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah. Sheikh Jaber has held the premiership from February 2012 until November 2019, but then he apologized to the Emir and backed out of the position because of rumors affecting his financial responsibility after a dispute with the Minister of Defense, Sheikh Nasser bin Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (son of the country’s Emir).

Fourth: Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahd Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (56 years old)

He is the most famous figure in the sports field, in Kuwait and the whole Gulf, and is a former minister who is the eldest son of Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. He is famous for his controversial statements and does not hide his aspiration to rule as an heir to his father, who was killed during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The controversy that he always raises makes his opportunity limited, as well as his personal disputes that he fought and is still fighting inside and outside the country. It is noteworthy that senior Kuwaiti sources indicate that Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahd might nominate Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah to take over the seat of the emirate in the country.

Fifth: Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (79 years old)

He is a former Kuwaiti Prime Minister (February 2006 – November 2011) and the second son of Sheikh Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. There is a widespread debate about his distinguished relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which those closest to him deny.

United Arab Emirates: Having an Eye on the Future and Another on the Memory of Brothers’ Wars

For illness-related reasons and since 2014, the President of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan(71 years old), has been absent from the political scene and official receptions in his country. However, it is noteworthy that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (58 years old), who is also the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, is managing the affairs of the emirate and handling most of his brother’s powers, as ruler of the UAE since November 2004, succeeding his father.

Although the transfer of the rule of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and consequently the presidency of the UAE, to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, appears to be an unquestionable matter, there are many “serious” questions about whether the arrangement of the ruling house (the next mandate) in the state of Abu Dhabi will pass to one of the brothers of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, following the historical principle for the rule of this emirate (the rotation of governance among brothers), or it will be transferred to Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (the eldest son of the current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed), which means a historical shift in the arrangement of the ruling house in the largest and wealthiest emirate in the UAE.

Historically, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi witnessed a bloody conflict between the sons of Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan (Ruler of Abu Dhabi between 1855 – 1909 AD), which caused one of the worst periods of rule in the history of the emirate. Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed took over the rule for three years (1909 to 1912) and was killed by his brother Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed. The series of assassinations did not stop, and after eight years, Sheikh Hamdan was also killed.

After that, Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed took over the rule for seven years (1920 to 1927), which ended in his death, too, by his brother Sheikh Saqr bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the latter was also killed by his brother Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed. This was followed by the abdication of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed to the rule of the emirate to his nephew, son of Sheikh Sultan, Sheikh Shakhbout bin Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

After the massacre of the four brothers, it was told that the sons of Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed pledged before their mother, Sheikha Salama, not to fight over the ruling. However, that did not prevent Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates, from overthrowing his brother, on August 6, 1966, through soft-power tactics and sending him to exile, in Beirut, at that time.

This bloody period represents a source of concern not only regarding the arrangement of the Ruling House in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, but, also concerning what guarantees the stability of the rest of the emirates that are under the federation of the United Arab Emirates, given the great importance of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, economically and politically, and since it is the most significant and largest emirate in the federation.

The candidates for the ruling of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi include many of Sheikh Zayed’s living sons. The most important question remains, specifically, regarding the personality of Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the extent to which his uncles are willing to accept his promotion to the position of the crown prince in the emirate. Below is a list of the most prominent names nominated for the post:

First: Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (58 years old)

Sheikh Hamdan is the governor’s representative in the western region, which is an “honorary” position. In February 2006, he was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister and remained in the cabinet until May 2009. His opportunity to reach the reign of the country appears relatively small, even though he is older than his brother, Saif, the Minister of the Interior; being the eldest of his siblings does not mean that he is the most likely candidate for the position.

Second: Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan (54 years old)

Sheikh Hazza is the Deputy Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council. He previously held the position of National Security Advisor (2006 – 2016 AD) and was succeeded by Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed. Questions arise about his declining political role in the country since 2016, but regardless, he remains a candidate.

Third: Sheikh Saif bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (52 years old)

Sheikh Saif is the half-brother of Mohammad bin Zayed. He is the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Interior, and member of the Supreme Council for National Security. Previously, he served as Undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior. He is considered one of the leading potential candidates and has reasonable opportunities to hold the position.

Fourth: Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan (49 years old)

He is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the United States of America (1993). Besides, his opportunity to assume the position of the crown prince is considered “logical,” especially if the family disregards the age hierarchy among the siblings.

Fifth: Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan (48 years old)

Sheikh Tahnoun is one of the powerful men and a National Security Advisor in the UAE. He has a mysterious personality, and he is the closest to his brother Mohammad bin Zayed. He is considered one of the most prominent candidates. However, there is something similar to a custom in the history of the Gulf states that would lower his chances, which is that those holding positions related to national security are often less likely to assume political positions.

Sixth: Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan (36 years old – estimated age)

He is a graduate of Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and is the eldest son of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He holds various positions, including being Deputy National Security Advisor and Head of the State Security Agency. Also, he is the head of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office since October 2019 and a member of the Emirate’s Executive Council. It is believed that his appointment as crown prince may cause a crisis within the ruling family and a radical change in the hierarchy of governance within the emirate.

Saudi Arabia: The Country of Open Scenarios

There does not seem to be a Gulf country having an extensive list of open scenarios as Saudi Arabia. The dramatic events that took place in the Kingdom since King Salman bin Abdulaziz assumed power in the country were followed by the appointment of the current crown prince, Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (34 years old).

The Allegiance Commission was formed in 2006 AD. It is mainly concerned with the selection of the King and the Crown Prince. Besides that, the commission consists of the children and grandchildren of the founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, and is responsible for determining future succession to the throne of Saudi Arabia. Many events arose controversy on the independence and strength of this body, and the extent to which it follows the king’s will when performing its duties. This controversy took place during the reign of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz who promoted Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the position of “Crown Prince” despite apparent opposition from some of the branches of the ruling family. Also, this occurred during the reign of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who respectively removed Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud from their positions.

In case the ruling is transferred to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, it will be necessary for the Allegiance Commission to carry out a meeting to appoint a new crown prince. In this context, the most prominent problem lies in the young age of the king, which makes the available options very limited, especially among the first row descendants of King Abdulaziz. This indicates that the opportunity for the brother of Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the current Deputy Minister of Defense, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (31 years old), to assume this position, seems reasonable.

This scenario does not negate the existence of other situations, including that Prince Muhammad bin Salman intends to appoint a “temporary” crown prince so that he can nominate one of his sons later as crown prince. Besides, another case scenario would be the agreement of members of the Allegiance Commission with the new king to name one of the descendants of King Abdulaziz from the “third” row descendants; in such a scenario, the list of candidates for the succession to the throne appears broad, complex and challenging to predict.

Bahrain and Qatar: Long-Term Political Stability

Contrary to the confusing scene in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, and Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain are witnessing relative stability in the arrangement of the ruling house.

According to clear constitutional provisions, the Crown Prince’s post in Bahrain seems to be stable in the person of the current Crown Prince, Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (50 years old). Also, this is the case for his elder son, the next “Crown Prince,” His Highness Shaikh Isa bin Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (29 years old).

Many rumors are being spread, from time to time, about the aspirations and the political future of the king’s son; Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. However, matters seem to be settled and the succession will be in the person of the Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. In this context, it is no secret that the country’s King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has restricted the role and aspirations of Sheikh Nasser in two aspects: the military aspect since he is the commander of the Royal Guard and National Security Advisor, and the sports aspect since Sheikh Nasser is the head of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and head of the Bahrain Olympic Committee. These aspects qualify Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad to be the first candidate to occupy the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, succeeding Field Marshal Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. More importantly, the shift of the reign to Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa represents a significant challenge to the stability of the ruling family, which does not seem to welcome the entry of the Al Maktoum family – the rulers of the Emirate of Dubai – into the main ruling house in the country. Accordingly, the scenario of taking over the governance by Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (whose parents and wife belong to the Al-Khalifa dynasty) is a settled constitutional and popular matter.

In the State of Qatar, which witnessed the transfer of power in 2013 AD to the young Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (39 years old), matters of government and the succession are clearly established. Moreover, the first candidate for the Crown Prince’s position is Sheikh Hamad bin Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (11 years old). It is noteworthy that the brother of the Emir of the country, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (31 years old), will serve as the deputy prince, and that’s according to Article 13 of the Constitution of Qatar, which states that “when it is not possible to delegate powers to the crown prince, the Emir may designate a deputy for him.” This indicates that this is a “temporary” position until the “nominated” crown prince reaches the age of eighteen, according to the provisions of the Constitution.

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