Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, the ruler of Kuwait who drew on his decades as the oil-rich nation's top diplomat to push for closer ties to Iraq after the 1990 Gulf War and solutions to other regional crises, died on Tuesday. He was 91.
In a Middle East replete with elderly rulers, Sheikh Sabah stood out for his efforts at pushing for diplomacy to resolve a bitter dispute between Qatar and other Arab nations that continues to this day.
His 2006 ascension in Kuwait, a staunch US ally since the American-led war that expelled occupying Iraqi troops, came after parliament voted unanimously to oust his predecessor, the ailing Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, just nine days into his rule.
Yet as Kuwait's ruling emir, he struggled with internal political disputes, the fallout of the 2011 Arab Spring protests and seesawing crude oil prices that chewed into a national budget providing cradle-to-grave subsidies.
“He represents the older generation of Gulf leaders who valued discretion and moderation and the importance of personal ties amongst fellow monarchs,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who studies Kuwait.
“No question he has suffered from the lack of deference and respect shown by the younger and more brash young princes holding power today.”
State television announced his death after playing Quranic prayers, with Royal Court Minister Sheikh Ali Jarrah Al Sabah reading a brief statement, his hands shaking.
“With great sadness and sorrow, the Kuwaiti people, the Arab and Islamic nations, and the friendly peoples of the world mourn the death of the late His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, emir of the state of Kuwait who moved to the realm of the Lord,” the sheikh said, without offering a cause of death.
Sheikh Sabah is expected to be succeeded by his half brother, the crown prince Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah.
The high regard for Sheikh Sabah could be seen in the outpouring of support for him across the Mideast as he suddenly fell ill in July this year, leading to a quick hospitalisation and surgery in Kuwait City amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Authorities did not say what ailed him.
A US Air Force C-17 flying hospital then transported Sheikh Sabah from Kuwait to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the flagship campus of the Mayo Clinic — an extraordinary gesture by the American government for a foreign head of state. The Mayo Clinic did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Prime Minister Imran Khan offered condolences on Sheikh Sabah's death, saying he was "deeply grieved" over his demise.
"[The] Emir’s contributions to Pak-Kuwait relations will always be remembered," the premier added.
Sheikh Sabah’s life spanned two very different Kuwaits. He was born June 16, 1929, just as the country’s pearl-diving industry would collapse. Within the decade, Kuwait would strike oil. Engineers would eventually confirm that the tiny country, slightly smaller than the US state of New Jersey, had the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves.
Sheikh Sabah became Kuwait’s foreign minister in 1963 after holding a number of other governmental posts. He would remain in that position for four decades, making him one of the world’s longest-serving foreign ministers.
His country’s greatest crisis came in 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and occupied the nation for seven months. Fleeing with other Kuwaiti officials to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Sabah collapsed and lost consciousness at one particularly stormy meeting of Arab leaders.
On February 24, 1991, US troops and their allies stormed into Kuwait. It ended 100 hours later. America suffered only 148 combat deaths during the whole campaign, while over 20,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed.
Even before the US entered Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah and others began suggesting a permanent American presence in the region might provide them protection from Iraq and others.
“One learns from the past and learns about it for the future,” Sheikh Sabah reportedly said. “One has to consider arrangements that would make not only my country stable but make the whole area stable.”
Today, Kuwait hosts some 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City, which is also home to the forward command of US Army Central.