Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah
Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah
PIC: AFP

Kuwait's Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah was sworn in Wednesday as the ruling emir of the tiny oil-rich country, propelled to power by the death of his half-brother after a long career in the security services.

At age 83, Sheikh Nawaf is not expected to deviate from the diplomatic path charted by his predecessor, the late Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah.

But his accession touched off speculation about who will become the next crown prince in the country known for its lively elected parliament and relative independence in the neighbourhood of Gulf Arab monarchies.

The late Sheikh Sabah, 91, was set to make his final journey to Kuwait later on Wednesday, his coffin flying back from Rochester, Minnesota, home of the flagship campus of the Mayo Clinic where he had been receiving medical treatment after surgery.

Although his funeral would typically draw tens of thousands of mourning Kuwaitis and scores of foreign leaders and dignitaries, because of the coronavirus pandemic the burial will be a private service restricted to relatives, said Kuwait's state-run news agency, KUNA.

The breadth and depth of emotion over the loss of Sheikh Sabah, known for his deft diplomacy and peacemaking, was reflected in condolence messages that streamed in from countries on opposite ends of regional feuds, from Saudi Arabia to Iran.

Kuwait entered a solemn 40-day period of mourning on Wednesday to commemorate the leader's life and death.

Sheikh Nawaf took office as the new ruler of Kuwait in the parliament building before rows of applauding lawmakers, clad in their traditional white robes and surgical masks because of the pandemic.

He bowed slightly, touching his hands to his head in a sign of respect. With a low voice, he delivered a short address offering tribute to his late half-brother and promising to "preserve the security of Kuwait."

"Kuwait throughout its history has seen serious and tough challenges, which we have succeeded in overcoming through cooperating together," said Sheikh Nawaf, reading from prepared remarks.

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