Kuwaiti parliament votes to replace emir with Prime Minister

Jerome Taylor
Wednesday 25 January 2006 01:00

Kuwait's parliament has taken the unprecedented step of unanimously voting to oust the ailing emir and replace him with the Prime Minister, ending the country's succession crisis.

Legislators and cabinet ministers agreed to depose their leader just minutes before a letter of abdication from the increasingly frail emir arrived in parliament.

Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, who had been ruler for little more than a week, will be replaced by the Prime Minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah. The day-to-day running of the country will be handed over to the cabinet.

"After listening to the medical report, the assembly with its 65 members agreed to remove him from the post of emir," the parliamentary speaker, Jassem al-Kharafi, said. "The emir remains in the hearts of all Kuwaiti people. We all love, appreciate and respect him, but this is God's will. We can only wish him a quick recovery."

The parliament will now elect a new leader, widely expected to be Sheikh Sabah, by a simple majority, bypassing centuries of tradition that alternated the Kuwaiti succession between two branches of the Sabah dynasty.

The move, a rare assertion of parliamentary power in an area of the world where hereditary monarchies are near absolute, ends speculation over whether the new emir was fit enough to rule. "Today, Kuwait has rid itself of tribal and social constraints," an analyst, Mohammed al-Jassem, told Reuters. "The constitution alone now governs the politics of Kuwait."

Sheikh Saad was proclaimed king on 15 January, just hours after the death of Sheikh Jaber, who had ruled Kuwait since 1977. But rumours over Sheikh Saad's health led to a divide within the royal family as to whether he was physically capable of ruling one of the world's richest countries.

Little information on the health of the Kuwaiti royal family is ever released. It has been common knowledge for years, however, that Sheikh Saad, 75, suffers from increasingly bad health. In 1997 he was treated for a bleeding colon and last year he spent a week in hospital for high blood pressure. Some have suggested the newly-ousted ruler suffers from Alzheimer's and would have been unable even to utter the short 30-word oath in parliament that would have made his rule official. Since his succession, Sheikh Saad had appeared only in a wheelchair and had not spoken in public.

Health problems have dogged the Sabah dynasty for several years, and finding a suitable successor to Sheikh Jaber was always going to prove problematic. Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah had, in effect, been running the country since Sheikh Jaber suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2001. But even the Prime Minister, who is also in his mid-seventies, is known to have health complications.

Parliament's decision comes after a particularly difficult week for Kuwaitis who look upon their royal family with great affection. The succession crisis has also affected business in the Gulf state, which contains roughly 10 per cent of the world's crude oil reserves. Parliament has been unable to debate an $8.5bn (£4.7bn) plan to boost oil output with the help of foreign firms since the crisis began.

Last Friday, Al-Qabas, a leading Kuwaiti daily newspaper, took the remarkable step of calling for Sheikh Saad's abdication, urging him to hand the throne to "he who is able among the sons of the honourable ruling family". The decision by Al-Qabas to publicise its views on the royal family was widely seen as evidence of not only how important the succession crisis was to Kuwaitis but also their heightened concerns over business in the oil-rich state.

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