Morning Brief

The Death of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Could Diminish the Country’s International Standing

The Middle East’s shifting balance of power could upend Kuwait’s traditional status as a regional mediator.

A picture taken on Sep. 29 in Kuwait City, Kuwait, shows a portrait of the country's late Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.
A picture taken on Sep. 29 in Kuwait City, Kuwait, shows a portrait of the country's late Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah. Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dies at 91, Trump and Biden spar in the first U.S. presidential debate, and the political crisis in Mali looks set to continue. 

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A Changing Middle East Could Force Kuwait to Change Tack 

Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah died on Tuesday after almost 15 years at the country’s helm, causing an outpouring of grief as international leaders from across the world mourned the loss of one of the Middle East’s most respected statesmen.

Prior to becoming leader in 2006, Sabah spent decades as the country’s foreign minister, navigating the region’s intense geopolitical rivalries during some of its most turbulent episodes. Notably, Sabah served as foreign minister just prior to Iraq’s invasion and occupation of the country in 1990. After the conclusion of the subsequent Gulf War, Sabah was instrumental in restoring Kuwait’s international standing, adopting a nonaligned approach to foreign policy that made it a go-between for many of the Gulf’s key players.

Stepping in. Sabah was replaced on Tuesday by his brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, after an announcement by the cabinet. Nawaf is expected to continue the foreign-policy approach pursued by his brother. But without the decades of diplomatic experience that Sabah brought and with regional tensions on the rise, it is uncertain if Kuwait can continue to play its traditional role as mediator.

A different Middle East. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular have steadily deteriorated in recent years and Washington’s push for Arab states to normalize relations with Israel as a way of building a wider regional bulwark against Iran are dramatically changing the geopolitical landscape. Without Sabah’s experience, Kuwait could find it increasingly difficult to balance these competing interests.

A country at the crossroads. Nawaf is considered a reluctant ruler who tries to keep a low public profile, so he is expected to delegate much power to his heir apparent, the next crown prince. Several members of the royal family are jockeying for the position, and whoever is ultimately appointed to serve as Nawaf’s second-in-command could have outsized influence in the country.


What We’re Following Today

U.S. debates kick off. U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden squared off for the first of three presidential debates on Tuesday in an event that will likely be remembered as the most chaotic U.S. presidential debate in decades as Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and the moderator and both candidates traded insults. The discussion, predictably, focused almost solely on domestic issues. Trump doubled down on his allegations of electoral fraud and refused to explicitly denounce white supremacists and right-wing militia groups when asked to do so. Biden, for his part, rejected several key left-wing policy positions, including the Green New Deal and calls to defund the police.

Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh wrote that “Biden may have gotten the upper hand by putting down Trump in the sort of derisive terms that previously Trump has used successfully against his previous rivals.”

No peace talks in Nagorno-Karabakh. The governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia have each rejected peace talks as fighting between their forces over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region intensifies. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev outright rejected the possibility of talks, while Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said talks were impossible while fighting continued. Dozens of people have been reported killed and hundreds wounded since fighting broke out on Sunday, representing the deadliest clash between the two sides in years.

There are concerns that the conflict could develop into a broader regional confrontation. On Tuesday, Armenia accused Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan, of shooting down one of its fighter jets in Armenian airspace. Turkey was also accused of moving militants from Syria into Azerbaijan. Russia, which backs Armenia, has urged Ankara to assist in efforts to establish a cease-fire.

New sanctions on Lukashenko. The United Kingdom and Canada both imposed sanctions on Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and several senior officials in his government over allegations of election rigging in last month’s presidential election. The sanctions, the first of their kind for major Western powers, include travel bans and asset freezes. Western governments were initially reluctant to challenge Lukashenko due to his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but they have ramped up the pressure this week after Lukashenko was inaugurated in a secret ceremony last weekend.

It is not clear how Moscow will respond. Putin previously warned foreign powers against meddling in Belarus’s internal affairs, and he formed a reserve police force last month that he vowed to send to Belarus if Lukashenko requested it.


Keep an Eye On

Sanctions remain on Mali. It may take longer than initially thought for regional leaders to lift sanctions on Mali. Last week, Mali’s new interim President Bah Ndaw appointed Moctar Ouane, a former foreign minister with no military background, as prime minister. The move appeared to meet a core demand of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that the new prime minister had to be a civilian in order to remove the sanctions it imposed after last month’s coup.

But on Tuesday, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said that regional leaders “may confer again to discuss outstanding grey areas in the Mali political situation” after meeting with ECOWAS, a sign the bloc is not ready to lift sanctions and could instead put pressure on the junta to remove coup leader Col. Assimi Goita as interim vice president.

Lebanon in turmoil. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the militant group still accepts France’s role in trying to find a way out of Lebanon’s political impasse, but urged French President Emmanuel Macron to change his approach to the situation. “We do not accept such language,” said Nasrallah, referring to a news conference in which Macron accused Lebanon’s political leaders of choosing “to favor their partisan and individual interests to the general detriment of the country.”

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib resigned on Saturday less than a month after taking the job after failing to meet a deadline set by France to form a new government. The country’s latest round of political turmoil erupted after two explosions last month tore through the capital of Beirut, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government.


Odds and Ends 

A potential diplomatic row between the United Kingdom and Malta over a shark tooth has been averted. The controversy began last weekend when David Attenborough, a leading British natural historian and broadcaster, presented a fossilized shark tooth that he found in Malta to 7-year-old Prince George. The tooth once belonged to a now-extinct species of shark, and it is estimated to be millions of years old. After the exchange was publicized on social media, Maltese Culture Minister Jose Herrera said he wanted to retrieve the tooth in order to put it on display in Malta as a reflection of the island nation’s natural history.

The sudden dispute led to a storm on social media, and ultimately the Maltese government relented. “The minister would like to note that with reference to this case, it is not the intention to pursue this matter any further,” a spokesman for Herrera said.


That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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